“Theater 101” might sound like the name of an undergraduate college class, but it’s actually a program at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. According to literary manager Amrita Ramanan, it began as a way to test ideas about the transparency of the new-play development process and was modeled after the First Look 101 Program at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. “It’s a way for audiences to deepen their understanding about how a production developed from page to stage,” Ramanan explains. The Arena program has been so successful that plans are afoot to create a “Theater 201” program for alums interested in deeper discourse. Arena and Steppenwolf are not the only companies eager to bolster their audiences’ appreciation of new work. Here’s a quick survey of three 101-style educational programs intended for adults that are achieving varied artistic aims.
Program: The INSiders at A Noise Within in Pasadena, Calif.
Cost: $325 per person (or $575 per couple)
Frequency: Six meetings per theatre season, 7–9 p.m. on Wednesdays
Members: Mostly subscribers to A Noise660 Within, including five couples (due to discount); usually about 20–30 people sign up per year
The Skinny: The INSiders, formerly known as the “Scholars Society,” began in 2005. Participants sign up and meet six times over the course of A Noise Within’s season, or “about once every six weeks or so,” figures Claire Mannle, education director. A local scholar is invited to present a talk about the play in question and participants read the script, usually a classic, in advance of the lecture-cum-conversation. Scripts are provided in the price of membership for INSiders and light refreshments are served. Visiting scholars receive a $100 stipend. “We end up with some earned income,” says Mannle, “but more than that, it helps with the level of engagement.” Newcomers are encouraged to audit a course before signing up.
What’s Worked: “When the participants read the script in advance, they come prepared for a lively conversation. It works really well when people do their homework,” says Mannle with a laugh. “Participants can study up on the life of an author and see how Shaw’s biography, for example, might affect his work. Seeing the play is the next step. The lectures and conversations foment ideas before people see the plays and makes for a deeper analysis.” Connecting plays in creative ways works, too: The INSiders recently did a session on Shaw’s Cymbeline Refinished—in which the later playwright supplied a “better” ending to the Bard’s melodrama. “Through that we linked our version of Cymbeline to our second play, The Doctor’s Dilemma,” Mannle reports.
What Didn’t: “Sometimes we have a hard time finding scholars—we had a tough time with Shaw specifically, so we reached out to the International Shaw Society and found two scholars we previously didn’t have in our database,” Mannle attests. Another challenge is finding people who are hitherto unfamiliar with A Noise Within’s work. “We’re always looking for ways to reach out to new members. It’s a challenge to get someone unfamiliar with our work to join the group.”
What’s Next: Mannle plans to continue the free symposiums and talk-backs that happen a few times per run as well as maintaining the INSiders. “It would be interesting to see if people in the INSiders group were interested in leading off-shoot discussions with other patrons,” says Mannle.
Cost: $300 for NYTW members, $350 for non-members
Frequency: 10 sessions, 6:30–8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays
Members: 12 took part in the pilot program, mostly single-ticket buyers; age range 15 and up
The Gist: “Casebook” began in March 2012 as part of a series of master classes offered through NYTW. “It was an opportunity for audience members to observe a collaborative production as it was being built,” says Bryn Thorsson, director of education. Classes were structured around Food and Fadwa, a co-production with Noor Theatre. They offered an introduction to Off Broadway and spotlighted themes such as playwriting, casting and actors, finance, directing, the rehearsal room, design and technical rehearsals. The class concluded with students attending a preview of Food and Fadwa as well as the opening-night performance and reception. “Artistic director Jim Nicola came to all the classes,” says Thorsson. “The first hour of the playwriting class was with artists involved in Food and Fadwa and the second hour was with [agent] Morgan Jenness and [playwrights] Amy Herzog and Matthew Lopez, who volunteered their time. This helped people understand the different ways of being a playwright.” Perhaps not surprisingly, a number of Casebook participants were aspiring artists themselves.
What Worked: “Nicola, who was at each session, would start the conversation and then open it up to the class while moderating it,” Thorsson elaborates. “The technical rehearsal session was a big hit with the class. We had only scheduled 45 minutes for them to observe tech, but they ended up loving it and wanted more time.” A session on stage management also proved to be compelling. Food and Fadwa’s stage manager Lindsey Turteltaub went over the nuts and bolts. Thorsson notes, “People were really surprised to discover the extent of the role of a stage manager.”
What Didn’t: The pilot program required a lot of staff hours. “It was great how much participants got out of it, but it was hard to find a balance in terms of staff and artists giving their time for sessions,” Thorsson says. Moreover, sessions almost always went over the time limit.
What’s Next: NYTW plans on doing Casebook again, but Thorsson isn’t sure which production in the upcoming season the theatre will time the class to. “Casebook will change every time we do it, and my hope is that we can show the many ways of making theatre. Our seasons are so eclectic that I imagine the production, whether it’s ensemble-driven or a playwright/director relationship, will inform the structure of the program.”
Program: YBCA: YOU at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco
Cost: $15/month plus a limited number of subsidized passes
Frequency: All access all the time to YBCA events and shows
Members: 170 YOUers, in age range 20 and up; for exclusive events with food, 15–25 participants
The Scoop: YBCA launched its YOU “aesthetic fitness” program in 2011 in order to help individuals curate their own artistic consumption at YBCA, but also at other art organizations throughout San Francisco. Senior programming manager Beth Pickens describes three components of the YOU program, the first being access to YBCA’s events: “YOUers get free admission to all parties and performances, and they can see a performance as many times as they like.” Pickens estimates there are about 300 performances a year at YBCA, including film, music and dance as well as performance art and theatre.
The second aspect of the program involves YBCA staff-curated events made specifically for YOU participants. These often have food and beverage components. Recently, local scholar Jonathan Katz delivered a lecture titled “John Cage’s Queer Silence,” followed by a reception examining Cage’s mycology obsession and highlighted by a mushroom tasting. “These events focus on community-building,” says Pickens. The third aspect of the YOU program is a participant’s one-on-one relationship with YBCA staff. “The participant fills out a survey and does a self-portrait—we want to know what you hate, what you’re curious about, what time periods in art you know about or want to know about,” says Pickens, who likens this one-on-one relationship to that with a gym trainer or academic advisor or art consultant. Together with YCBA staff, participants create a calendar of art events, and staffers follow up with participants via phone, e-mail or in person.
What Worked: YOU exclusive events that involve food and wine are popular. “We do it on a first-come, first-serve basis,” says Pickens. “People like to share art with other people, so we give them a community to see and talk about art. We also have a staff that many of them know personally due to the one-on-ones, so there’s a deeply personal level of engagement.” For another popular event called “Art Savvy,” participants go through a 15-minute visual-thinking exercise and guest artists offer tools for how to “read” performance art or dance. Dinner is related to the show, and participants reconvene for dessert, drinks and conversation.
What Didn’t: “When we started this program, everyone thought that there would be a social media aspect, but it became clear that people wanted to experience art together and in person. They wanted to leave their house and talk about a film together!” says Pickens with a chuckle. “So we’ll be focusing less on Internet meetings and more on in-person meetings.”
What’s Next: More YOU exclusive events with food and drink, as well as a continued commitment to offering subsidized passes. “The rate of gentrification in San Francisco is insane,” Pickens contends, and it’s essential to keep the program open to all people regardless of income. “It’s amazing to have major donor events where we bring people who have gifted together with people who are there on a subsidized pass. We hope other institutions use this model.”