Throughout history, theatre has seen its moments of activism, protest, and controversy. From the leading ladies of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata using a sex-strike to protest war to Frank Wedekind’s blunt and frank representation of adolescent angst and sexuality in Spring Awakening, playwrights, directors, and performers have claimed the theatrical platform to stir the pot and critique the world around them.
Theatrical activism is still alive and well in today’s politically charged and divided America, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. As the director of individual giving and special events at About Face Theatre in Chicago, I spend a lot of my time thinking about this question: What does today’s political climate mean for a development team who spends their time exploring new ways to encourage audience members to invest in continuing this activist tradition?
I’m particularly intrigued by this question, because About Face is an identity-focused company, centering on LGBTQ stories and issues. Many theatre companies were founded with the mission of focusing on a specific area of social justice: gender and sexuality, racial identity, religion, etc. While having a specific focus has many positive aspects—a throughline of organizational purpose that patrons can rally around, to name one—it can also present a lot of challenges, especially for a development team. Here are three challenges I’ve faced in my role, as well as three possible solutions.
1. Breaking news. The social justice topic your company explores in the rehearsal room and onstage is going to end up in the news—a lot. Your patrons and donors are undoubtedly aware of these headlines, so you need to be too. They’ve invested in your organization for a reason: They care about that specific issue and they want to be a part of your company’s work toward making a difference. Stay up to date on current events and make sure you engage your patrons/donors in conversations about the news. Address the issue in your next e-blast, post about it on social media, or send a personal letter of connection to your patrons. You may not be able to convince your artistic director to change the season’s lineup of shows, but just a small note can make a big difference in your patrons’ desire to stay connected with you. Don’t be afraid to join in on the water cooler conversation!
2. Keep the conversation going. Since your patrons care about your mission and the issues that affect your company, they want to be engaged with the issue even after the curtain falls. In order to keep the conversation going, one well-tested solution is to hold a series of talkbacks with industry experts in addition to the artists. (Pro tip: These don’t have to happen just before or after a performance!) But you’ll really set yourself apart if you can engage your donors and patrons in other ways, like planning a volunteer day with local non-arts organizations working around your cause. Also, make sure your online presence is interactive; don’t spend all of your time just promoting your ticket sales. Engage your followers in conversation via email and on all of your social media platforms.
3. What about me? This point is the trickiest to solve, so I’m tossing it out merely for your consideration. (If you have a well-oiled solution, feel free to let me know!) Even within the smallest subset of a topic/issue/community, there are layers (and layers!) of perspectives and opinions. You must not assume that all of your patrons or donors feel the same way about the issue at hand. So tread lightly when engaging in these important conversations. Providing a space for your patrons to voice their opinion allows you to establish a deeper and more meaningful relationship between them and your organization. Be prepared for a diversity of thought and be excited to encourage it—it will certainly pay off.
Development work with a theatre company whose mission focuses on social justice can be a lot of fun if you’re ready to embrace all of its nuances. Engage and celebrate the passionate and sometimes controversial voices that surround you. After all, it’s the reason you love the theatre, isn’t it?
Andrew Fortman is a graduate of the Ohio State University and the University of Virginia theatre departments. He currently serves as the director of individual giving and special events at About Face Theatre in Chicago.