So you decide to found a company. You politely ignore the advice of others because you’re full of artistic energy, and even though you know that starting a theatre is nothing short of crazy, it’s the only thing you can imagine doing. Belief in your mission carries you forward. Perhaps you focus on new plays, maybe you’re devoted to the classics, or it could be your theatre is keen on exploring the Asian-American experience, or work by playwrights from Kentucky, or devised physical theatre, or literary adaptations of Russian dramatists. Whatever your undertaking is, it’s a big, juicy one, and embedded in it is some kind of nearly impossible goal.
So what happens when—against all odds—your theatre survives? You’ve been making work for some 10, 15, 20 years, but the landscape has changed. It’s only natural to reassess, take stock and embark on an updated strategy.
The Theater Offensive in Boston, a 25-year-old organization devoted to queer theatre, reached just such a turning point five years ago. “When we began this company, putting on a gay-themed play in Boston was a really big deal,” says Abe Rybeck, founder and executive director of TTO. “But that has changed. It’s not so unusual any month of the year for someone to be putting on a queer-themed play in Boston. We realized the Theater Offensive had, in many ways, ‘succeeded’ in its mission. The goal of the organization, as understood by the public, had been achieved, and queer theatre had become accessible.”
Nevertheless, Rybeck and his team observed that there were still a number of neighborhoods in Boston where one could not only not see a queer-themed play, but also where one couldn’t see a play at all. “That seemed like a really big opportunity for us and also a really big challenge,” ventures Rybeck. “It all came to a head in a rehearsal when a 16-year-old girl said during an improvisation, ‘Why should I have to take two trains and a bus just to be who I really am? I want to be out in my own neighborhood.’”
While self-awareness is good, self-diagnosis is not a dependable tool. With that adage in mind, Rybeck and his team assembled a group of staffers and outside eyes (such as former board members and trusted people of the theatre’s community) to take part in what TTO called “a strategic planning working group. Sexy title, I know,” Rybeck deadpans. “We didn’t hire a consultant, we chose community members who we trusted to think big in solving tough problems at a grass-roots level.”
The group of 15 or so people met once every two-to-four weeks over the course of nine months. The first topic on the agenda was an examination of TTO’s mission. “We realized that we still loved the mission, but that the way the organization had developed to address that mission was out-of-date,” Rybeck explains. Next up, the group investigated TTO’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges. “We realized that many of our strengths were not what our programming was built on,” Rybeck recalls. These strengths include True Colors, TTO’s community-based program for young adults, along with the strong partnerships the theatre had built in several Boston neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the business model TTO used for producing was a weakness. “I can’t say it was broken, because it never exactly worked!” Rybeck jokes.
But the biggest challenge of all was perhaps beyond the realm of TTO’s programming: “We recognized that homophobia and racism and poverty and violence were still very real everyday threats to most of us in the city, and that we, as a theatre company, had not taken that on. We were letting theatre be an escape from those issues instead of making theatre be the thing that’s going to change it,” says Rybeck.
With that realization firmly in place, TTO’s developed an approach called “Out in Your Neighborhood,” which returned the organization to the guerrilla-theatre roots of its past and flipped programming so that TTO events happened not in theatre buildings but in four specific areas of Boston: Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain and the South End. A number of criteria went into selecting these neighborhoods: violence, poverty and a high level of need, as well as preexisting networks. “We wanted to have enough connections in these neighborhoods so that we could succeed in making a difference,” Rybeck explains. “It was important to us that people had enough experience with our theatre to trust working with us.”
“The Theater Offensive grew out of a guerrilla troupe. Out in Your Neighborhood has returned us to one of our core values. The majority of our shows now happen in churches, laundromats, bars and backyards,” declares Rybeck, who points out that audience numbers have swelled. “We used to think about how we could attract ticket buyers, but now we ask, ‘What are the people in these neighborhoods aching to see?’”
Out in Your Neighborhood has also helped TTO clarifiy its mission. “We had always struggled with not being able to say no to things,” Rybeck explains. “We now have clearer boundaries.”
The approach has also changed the relationship between TTO and its audience. “Since 95 percent of our programming is now free—with Out in Your Neighborhood, there’s no longer a transaction involved. Instead it feels like we have ongoing relationships with a neighborhood and the people that live there. When you’re working on a small scale like we are, it’s ultimately about depth—that’s become much more important to us than numbers,” he says.
As a result, people have stepped up their giving. At a fundraiser last fall, Rybeck recalls spotting a gaggle of teens who take part in True Colors. “They were gabbing in a corner, and at first I was furious because they were supposed to be drumming up business. But then they told me that they were pitching in to give a few hundred dollars. I was so moved, and it certainly inspired other people at the benefit to kick in.” (TTO’s earned income is approximately 6 percent.)
“The process of imagining Out in Your Neighborhood was bizarrely fun and exhilarating, but actually executing it has at times been extremely painful and difficult,” Rybeck says. “We had to stop doing some of the things we loved and had thought identified us.” For example, TTO’s Out on the Edge Festival of queer theatre—one of the longest-running of its kind—came to a close, and though Rybeck thought there’d be a community uproar, there wasn’t.
“We also lost a lot of things that people love, like reviews in newspapers and roofs over performance spaces,” Rybeck says, adding that certain street events have challenged actors who must try and stay in character while navigating untraditional settings.
TTO also lost some longtime employees in restructuring. “People got hurt and staff members were laid off. That was painful for everyone,” says Rybeck.
TTO’s next show, River See, by writer/director Sharon Bridgforth, bows Nov. 13–16, and Rybeck and his team have a long list of people they want to invite. “This work matters to a lot of people. We know them by name and where they live and which circles of friends they’re a part of. The scale we’re working with allows us to fill our seats and create a really special group for a performance.”
He then turns philosophical. “Something we need to remember is that while we may love going to the theatre, a lot of people don’t! When you’re presenting performances that don’t require the aesthetic of a theatre building, there’s an opportunity to reach people you might not otherwise reach.” (More than half of the people who see TTO programming have no seen any other play in the past year.)
“We’re reaching a group of people that don’t see themselves as theatregoers. Sure, maybe that will change—but maybe what will change is the definition of what a theatregoer actually is!”