Challenge: To build a more diverse audience
Plan: Use a grant to shift marketing tactics, host events, and commission new works by diverse writers
What Worked: Creating fun experiences for theatregoers
What Didn’t: Effectively measuring the impact of programming on audience members
What’s Next: Putting a long-term data plan in place and continuing to conduct research
Earlier this year I went to a special performance of Julia Cho’s Aubergine for folks under the age of 30 at New York City’s Playwrights Horizons. The performance was capped with an after-party, complete with a photo booth, beer on tap, and tables filled with Korean food—appropriate for the food-centric play by the Korean-American playwright. As I noshed on scallion pancakes and skewers of barbecued meat, I mingled with other theatre fans as excited as I was about the post-show spread. For the avid theatregoer, the experience offered a nice addition to the usual theatregoing routine.
La Jolla Playhouse, a short drive from downtown San Diego, is testing similar tactics to lure new patrons. In 2015 the Playhouse received a “Building Audiences for Sustainability” (BAS) grant from the Wallace Foundation, designed to help find ways to bring in more of San Diego’s diverse population. The Playhouse was one of 25 arts organizations across the country to receive a four-year grant within the six-year $52 million initiative, which is now in its second year. Each year the foundation decreases the funding amount, a move designed to encourage long-term sustainability.
It’s not just about food: The Playhouse has used the Wallace funds to ramp up its new-works commissions, invest in research to ensure the grant’s longevity after its four-year period ends, and—yes—do more engagement events (with catering). The bottom line, says Mary Cook, the Playhouse’s director of communications, is “to build an audience that is more reflective of San Diego.”
First the staff partook in a company-wide identity workshop to examine the best ways to implement the funding. The six-month process, spearheaded by the NYC-based Additive Agency, included a series of interviews with board members, staff, artists, volunteers, and audience members. “We heard loud and clear that everyone wants to feel like they are part of something larger—that they are a contributing factor to something larger,” says Cook.
That’s why the Playhouse has been offering patrons opportunities to participate more directly. The Playhouse partners with local breweries to offer pre-performance beer tastings at Thirsty Thursdays, local food trucks line up outside for Foodie Fridays, and live musicians perform in the lobby before curtain every weekend for Sonic Saturdays. For Mike Lew’s Tiger Style! in 2016, the theatre piped music from inside the theatre into the lobby and had a DJ from the show play music for audience members before the performance.
“These engagement events are fun and cool, but we don’t know yet what kind of impact they are having,” says Cook. “We can’t say definitively who is participating and who is not.”
While the theatre has been conducting post-show surveys for years, patrons now have the option to include ethnic identification in questionnaires to help streamline the theatre’s research. Cook says the next wave of research about the engagement events will most likely involve telephone interviews to assess how pre-show events affected patrons’ perceptions and experiences of the Playhouse, particularly with audience members who identify as being diverse.
A lot of the participatory programming goes hand in hand with the company’s Without Walls (WoW), an outdoor immersive theatre festival that began in 2015, shortly before the theatre received the Wallace Foundation grant. The family-friendly nature of the festival has brought new audience members to the Playhouse, piqued interest in new work, and informed the theatre’s process for planning other participatory events.
Another way the theatre has been working to attract new audiences is by commissioning new works from diverse writers. “The philosophy is that we need to create a pipeline of artists of color, and artists who are telling stories that reflect the complexity and multiplicity of people’s identities,” says associate artistic director Jaime Castañeda. The Wallace Foundation grant has allowed the theatre to double the number of artists in its commissioning program, which is currently supporting eight playwrights developing six new works: Guillermo Calderón, Martyna Majok, Lauren Yee, Martín Zimmerman, and two writing teams: Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza, and Keith A. Wallace and Deborah Stein.
“The team here, the theatre company, and the city are interacting with new voices that haven’t been here in San Diego or the Playhouse,” explains Castañeda.
The theatre has also invited patrons to be part of the long gestation process of creating new work, inviting them to watch everything from developmental readings to fully staged productions. Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Miss You Like Hell, which premiered at the Playhouse in October, was the first commissioned work to be produced as part of the mainstage season. The next step is to gauge if such access creates loyal new audience members, even season subscribers. “Some of the shows have produced an audience that is encouragingly far more diverse, so there is that kind of metric,” says Cook.
For the concrete nuts and bolts, Cook has found the Wallace Foundation’s research guidance invaluable. To help the grant outlive its four-year timeframe, Wallace holds a yearly convening for all of its BAS grant recipients. “At those convenings, we are spending time with all of our colleagues talking about what is working, what is not, next steps, and challenges,” says Cook.
For example, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, another recipient, inspired the Playhouse’s approach of creating B-roll videos for audience development. To motivate ticket buyers, La Jolla Playhouse filmed the cast of Miss You Like Hell recording the song from the show, and The New York Times released the video exclusively. In addition, the Playhouse has invested more in digital marketing and increased its social-media presence.
“This evolution of the perception of the Playhouse in the larger community will take years to build and transform,” says Cook. “The pace of it can be frustrating.”
But Cook says the theatre is in it for the long haul, and is willing to put in the labor for the future of the Playhouse. “To come to work every day knowing that this is what we are putting our energy toward, and that it can create real change for this institution and the community, is gratifying,” she says.
From the artistic side, Castañeda is on the same page. “Even when it is challenging, it is the yummy bits of producing and making theatre,” he says. “What are the exciting ideas by exciting new artists or established artists, and how do we make those ideas come to fruition and share them with audiences? This is what theatres and producers and literary directors dream of.”