For TCG, November is an important month for discussions on finance and governance within our theatres. Our annual Fall Forum on Governance, slated this Nov. 6–8 in New York City, brings together 200 or more trustees and theatre leaders to discuss their challenges and how they are solving complex problems within their organizations. This year’s theme—“Strategy Forward”—is designed to help theatres consider whether they should be engaged in strategic planning or scenario planning—or if they should toss out the plans altogether while developing a greater sense of organizational flexibility.
What’s important ultimately is how board/staff interactions and strategy development are manifest on our stages and in our communities. Fall Forum attendees will engage with thought leaders on emerging trends and strategic thinking; hear case studies from organizations that have successfully cultivated agile board and staff leadership; and apply these lessons to critical field issues like board-led fundraising. Trustees will also have the chance to engage with a growing national movement of trustees crafting the latest edition of TCG’s board toolkit, The Art of Governance.
Another November highlight is the release of Theatre Facts 2014, our latest annual report based on the TCG Fiscal Survey, accompanied by an informative story that includes input from leaders across the field on their experiences (and experiments) in keeping their organizations alive and vital. That story is included in the Nov. ’15 issue of American Theatre. Reading it reminds me of just how agile, entrepreneurial, and tenacious our theatre field can be. Based on data from theatres whose fiscal years ended by Sept. 30, 2014, this extensive study shows that overall, more theatres ended their year in the black than not—and it indicated continuing growth in contributions, particularly from individual donors and foundations. Total ticket income was up, while overall attendance was down slightly. Still, one area that showed particular attendance growth was family programming at theatres that do not identify specifically as theatres for young audiences. These companies saw increases in income, performances, and attendance.
The story hones in on several topics that could be expanded upon and delved into more deeply—for example, the delicate balance between reducing capacity by cutting the number of performances or productions, a practice that lowers supply and can create a greater sense of demand for available tickets, but might also place too much pressure on fewer shows to make the overall “nut.” There are reports of a number of entrepreneurial approaches to building new income streams, including liquor licenses that are increasing concession sales while making the theatre experience more social for some audience members; and rentals of space, equipment, and physical production elements. While these may seem old hat, theatres are getting better at leveraging their assets to generate revenue, which in turn supports artistic and community programming. Additionally, an increasing number of theatres are finding ways to share their space and time with smaller or newer companies, often at very low cost or free. While that practice may not directly benefit their bottom lines, it helps to build a sense of shared theatre ecology within their communities.
In my own travels to visit theatres around the country, I find that there is energy and engagement in so many board rooms and among staff. Perhaps it’s the feeling of reaching a level of equilibrium—there’s a tangible sense of breath and hope that has made many theatres interested in planning for the future. There’s also an increasing amount of new work on tap, and a focus on new strategies for connecting with local communities. The enthusiasm about our Fall Forum this year bears those observations out.
At the same time, I sense recurring concerns about the basics. How do we build attendance, cultivate interest among younger audiences, and make sure that our theatres are as equitable, inclusive, and diverse as possible? There are two data points that stick with me: the particular growth in family programming at theatres that do not identify specifically as theatres for young audiences, and the consistently robust attendance over the years at behind-the-scenes activities. In the first case, the ongoing and widespread concern about audience growth and attracting a new generation of digitally native audiences is not even close to being matched by a commitment to serving young people and families through productions and other programming. Given the changing demographics of our nation, in which new births and people under the age of 18 make us already a majority minority country, it seems that creating exciting, invested programming for a diverse young audience is crucial—particularly in communities that do not already have such a resource.
Minneapolis, of course, has such a resource: Its Children’s Theatre Company recently marked its 50th anniversary. On my way to the company’s celebration, my Somali Uber driver told me how important CTC—and other cultural experiences like it—are to his young son, with whom he is fond of attending shows. And that dynamic carries forward. Linda Hartzell, who will soon retire after 30-plus years at Seattle Children’s Theatre, an icon of the Seattle cultural landscape, said in a recent interview: “Now I’m greeting the children and grandchildren of parents who visited the theatre when they were young.”
These are the fertile possibilities that grow into reality when theatres plan and manage their assets—economic and otherwise—wisely. That’s what the Fall Forum is all about.