Theatre Facts 2016, Theatre Communications Group’s in-depth industry report based on data from the TCG Fiscal Survey, examines financial, performance, and attendance data supplied by TCG Member Theatres for fiscal years concluding any time between Oct. 31, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2016. The report was written by Zannie Giraud Voss and Glenn B. Voss of the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University, with Ilana B. Rose and Laurie Baskin of TCG. Theatre Facts 2016, replete with detailed charts and graphs, can be found in the Research section of tcg.org, along with earlier Theatre Facts editions. The report presents three perspectives: The Universe section offers a broad overview of the U.S. professional not-for-profit theatre field in 2016, which included an estimated 1,850 organizations. The Trend Theatres section explores changes over time, with longitudinal analysis of the 131 TCG Member Theatres that participated in the Fiscal Survey yearly since 2012; there’s also data for 94 theatres that participated yearly since 2007. In this article, all references to Trend Theatres denote the five-year analysis and all figures are adjusted for inflation. The Profiled Theatres section provides a detailed examination of all 182 TCG Fiscal Survey 2016 participants and breaks those theatres into six budget groups, based on annual expenses—from Group 1 (annual expenses of $499,999 or less) to Group 6 (expenses of $10 million or more).
Charting the activity of 131 Trend Theatres over the five years from 2012 to 2016, Theatre Communications Group’s Theatre Facts 2016 reveals intriguing findings about the state of the U.S. professional not-for-profit theatre field. Some key takeaways: Earned income grew at about the same pace as expenses, but that growth was driven by revenue from things like from rentals, education/outreach programs, and investment income rather than by ticket sales. And individuals led the way during a period of strong overall contributed income growth.
Theatres also faced myriad challenges and rose to meet them in a variety of strategic ways. Gleaning highlights from TCG’s latest annual industry report, we spoke to 12 managing leaders from a diverse group of theatres across the country about their evolving relationships with their audiences and communities, and the difficulties of navigating escalating costs and a changing fundraising landscape.
Subscriptions: It’s Complicated
“I need to say it loud and clear: Subscriptions are not dead.”
That’s Bernie Griffin, managing director of the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Almost every managing leader interviewed for this article said something similar. But the story is far more complicated than Griffin might like: Average subscription income for the Trend Theatres was at its five-year highest point in 2016. But the increase in subscription income fell just 0.3 percent shy of inflation and was accompanied by an increase in the average subscription ticket price.
Further, while subscription income was the second greatest source of earned income in each of the five years, that income, over time, covered a smaller percentage of total expenses. Also, 2016 saw a five-year low in the number of subscribers, which was 8.1 percent below the 2012 level. (Subscription-related stats from Theatre Facts reflect both subscriptions and memberships.)
So, what are theatres doing to attract those coveted subscribers/members, who create dependable cash flow and guarantee audiences? EgoPo Classic Theater in Philadelphia gives each season a theme, said managing director Shayna Freed. As a result, she believes, “We do see a much higher subscriber base as compared to single ticket sales compared to other theatres of our size. Because we try to make it a journey-through-the-season kind of experience, we’re able to sell in a way that I think a lot of theatres are struggling with as they see subscription sales go down. The stability of having a growing subscriber base is really important to us, especially as a small theatre.”
Diane Stiles, managing director of the Castillo Theatre in New York City, noted, “The biggest change (in recent years) has been in ticket sales.” Over the last several years, Castillo has focused its energy on growing its membership base. “We call everyone who comes to our theatre and ask them to become a member,” Stiles said. “As we’re bringing in more new audiences with our co-production partnerships,” she continued, Castillo is seeing “an incremental increase in new members coming on board to support the mission.” Stiles and her team work hard to make the membership meaningful, connecting members with staff and those benefitting from their programs, like students and adults in underserved communities. Stiles continued: “Our membership slogan is ‘a theatre you can belong to.’”
At Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J., producing artistic director Marshall Jones explained the benefit of getting subscribers to emotionally invest in the theatre. “We feel that calling our subscribers members gives them a stronger sense of connection. They love saying, ‘I’m a member.’ They love using first person: ‘Well, when we did that show a couple years ago…’ I love that. I want them to feel that this company is theirs.” After realizing that audiences were split between longtime subscribers who want the usual subscriber experience and younger people who look for flexibility, Crossroads responded by offering two membership packages. “We have what we call our Legacy Membership,” Jones said, “and that’s for the 65-year-old person who’s been coming for the last 30 years and who wants to come for the second Sunday of every show. Then we have our Flex Membership, where they get four tickets they can use in any combination, and they can purchase additional tickets at 30 percent off. We have found that that has been very successful, and it allows us to continue our membership campaign throughout the season.”
About Face Theatre in Chicago has found success by decoupling membership from a fixed theatre season. “Our subscription/membership program is called AFT on Demand,” said managing director Alana Parvey Zalas, “and it runs for 365 days from the date of purchase, either monthly or in a lump sum at the beginning. Members then get tickets and reserved seats to each show during that year, as well as invitations to ancillary events and other perks.”
For American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green, Wisc., the seasonal nature of the theatre and its rotating repertory productions don’t lend themselves to the traditional subscription model either. The company does, however, offer what it calls a renewal period of pre-season discounts to ticket-holders from the prior season. This renewal period has grown bigger and bigger with each passing season.
Tickets and Attendance: Also Complicated
While several of the interviewed theatres saw attendance and ticket sales grow—Crossroads’ Jones said it was evidence that the economy was finally recovering from 2008’s recession—the big picture isn’t entirely rosy. From 2012 onward, resident attendance at Trend Theatres steadily declined, though 2016 saw a 1.8 percent increase from 2015. Additionally, while the average number of single tickets sold grew annually between 2013 and 2016, there was an overall decline of 2 percent from 2012. Growth in the income from those single tickets barely exceeded inflation and supported 2.3 percent less of average total expenses in 2016 than in 2012. In total, average ticket income was 1.2 percent lower in 2016 than at the beginning of the five-year period.
California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) in Orinda, Calif., saw attendance dip during the fiscal year (FY) captured in Theatre Facts, likely due to an artistic director transition, mused managing director Susie Falk. That turnover may have created some uncertainty for ticket buyers and donors alike. However, executive director Julie Leach of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT) in Sarasota, Fla., reported continued strong ticket sales, which covered nearly half of the budget. That’s even higher than the average Trend Theatre, which covered 36.8 percent of its total expenses with total ticket income in 2016.
Several theatres counted the fiscal year as their biggest ever in terms of ticket sales and attendance. “We broke a million dollars for the first time in the theatre’s history,” effused executive director Bud Martin of Delaware Theatre Company (DTC), “just in box office.” Four out of that year’s five shows were major hits, with three extending and the new musical Diner pulling in $400,000 alone. (It didn’t hurt that authors Sheryl Crow and Barry Levinson were on hand for the premiere.) Also popular was Tappin’ Thru Life, created and performed by Maurice Hines.
“We had a little over 7,000 people come to the theatre that had never been to the theatre before,” Martin continued. “It certainly proved to us that new musicals that are looking to have a future life in the commercial theatre, like Tappin’ Thru Life and Diner, are very attractive to people.” The attention that Diner brought DTC translated to a $50,000 increase in subscriptions in FY17.
Another factor complicating ticket sales is how to set prices to begin with. Ed Zakreski, the managing director of Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., said, “At the end of the day we are a nonprofit theatre, and we want everything we do to be accessible. So we’re trying to figure out where we’re going to set the top. That’s always a conversation, to figure out of how you help your organization secure its future through income but also remain focused on your mission of getting your message out.” Theatres don’t want ticket prices to alienate their desired audiences.
Building Audiences: Access and Equity
Theatres are working hard to build their audiences, and it’s not just about butts in seats. Companies are asking who their current audiences are and why, as well as figuring out how they can better serve people outside of their usual attendees. They are producing work that is authentic to the community, offering a wide range of ticket prices, and investing in the overall patron experience.
As for ticket prices, executive director Mary Budd of Bangor, Maine’s Penobscot Theatre Company, noted the theatre’s range of strategies—including waived admission for youths in foster care and state custody. Round House’s leaders, meanwhile, assessed their ticket-pricing strategy to see if it aligned with their values. “We’re really committed to accessibility,” said Ed Zakreski. But when they assessed a “$10 Tuesdays” program in the 2015-16 season, which was open to anyone but aimed at lower-income folks, they found it was not being used by the desired audience. They’ve switched this year to “2-for-1 Tuesdays.” With donor underwriting, Round House also offers free tickets to any teenager.
Castillo is also lucky to have donors who underwrite bringing in students and other program participants—often from underserved communities—as audience members.
“For youth productions or improv shows or workshop shows, we have lower-priced tickets,” said Castillo’s Diane Stiles. The company also offers group discount rates to various social service organizations.
One goal many theatres share is to make their audiences more diverse and inclusive. WBTT’s Leach reported that the typical audience member in 2009 was a white retiree in their 60s; despite its name and mission, only 2 percent of its audience were African Americans. “Over time, we’ve worked really hard to develop relationships in the community with African-American groups,” Leach said. “There is a relatively significant number of wealthy African-American retirees here too, and they love the arts. A lot of them are from big cities that have black theatres, so they’re delighted to see a black theatre here. So we’ve managed to grow our African-American audience to about 11 percent from 2 percent. The city itself is about 15 to 16 percent African-American, and the county only has 5 percent.”
At the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, explained managing director Jennifer Bielstein, “What we’d like to do is retain our current audiences, but also broaden and diversify them and reach people who have not traditionally come to the Guthrie or haven’t felt it is for them, to welcome them into what we do. We’d be pleased to engage with people in the Twin Cities and throughout the state—to meet them outside of our building, directly in their communities—and learn of their priorities and needs and understand how we can use the power of live theatre to have impact.”
For Round House, the fiscal year in question “was the first year we really saw new and diverse voices truly beginning to lead on our stages,” said Zakreski. “Our top two bestselling plays were Father Comes Home from the Wars and The Who & the What.” Between those two shows, Round House staged Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which, Zakreski commented, did well in sales and even extended, but there wasn’t the same kind of excitement around it.
“I don’t want to misstate and sound like we have a fully racially diverse audience,” Zakreski clarified. “We still struggle like most regular resident theatres do, but I think especially for Father Comes Home we saw a much more diverse audience than we do for, say, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. For us it’s a matter of: You’ve got to be pursuing it on all fronts, whether it’s shows that you put onstage, how do you advertise to your audiences, who you’re putting on your board and your staff.”
In terms of pursuing audiences on all fronts, DTC took a very targeted approach. To attract new and diverse audience to Tappin’ Thru Life, Martin said, “Maurice Hines wrote a personal note to the pastors of all the black churches in Delaware, offering them two free tickets to previews, and we got groups who had never come to the theatre before because of that.”
Expenses Rising: What Else Is New?
You may have rolled your eyes at the above subhead. Of course expenses are rising across the board. The overall increase in total expenses from 2012 was 10.5 percent, after adjusting for inflation. Average CUNA—Changes in Unrestricted Net Assets, or the difference between total unrestricted income and total expenses—was positive in 2016, but the Trend Theatres were split 50/50 between those that ended the year in the black and those that suffered a deficit.
Eighty percent of the Trend Theatres experienced budget growth that outpaced inflation. Those theatres added more full- and part-time employees as well as more fee-based and jobbed-in workers, and there were annual increases in every payroll category. Total payroll accounted for roughly 54 percent of Trend Theatres’ total expenses each year, and total payroll growth from 2012 to 2016 surpassed inflation by 12.7 percent. Managing leaders worry about these expenses, as well as how to attract and retain employees, especially in booming cities where the cost of living rises every year.
“Seattle’s exploding,” said 5th Avenue’s Griffin. “Admin positions, for a long time, were in the $30-40,000 range; now they have to be $45-60,000. Amazon is changing the face of this city, and housing is tight and expensive. To remain competitive and retain the quality of staff you need to make this happen, we have a very competitive health coverage plan. We don’t ask employees to participate in the payment of that plan. That’s a big thing.” The theatre also pays for employees’ transit cards. But Griffin does worry whether employees can “live with the salary. For some of those lower-level positions, are they the working poor? That’s a real concern of mine.”
Personnel is Cal Shakes’s highest expense line, said Falk. However, she said, “We still struggle with staff retention because the cost of living in the Bay Area is so high. Expenses associated with the season were particularly high” during the fiscal year covered in the report. “We were challenged to manage production expenses,” she added, “partly because we didn’t have artistic leadership, and partly because we were just short-staffed in general that season. Our expenses associated with our facilities are also very high.”
The Guthrie’s Bielstein said she considers personnel expenses an investment. “You want to continue investing in people in terms of raises both to just cover cost-of-living increases but also for merit-based reasons, as applicable,” she said. “Then there’s related benefits, which either increase because they’re percentages related to wages or with what’s going on with health insurance and the ever-increasing cost for all of us.” She paused. “Expenses, I think, in our business will always outpace the revenue increases we can generate reliably.”
After their banner year in ticket sales, attendance, and publicity, DTC’s Martin realized, “The production value of Diner—because of it being fully automated—did raise the bar from a production perspective. It made it very clear that we’ll get a lot of new people to the theatre when we do the higher production values.”
As a result of these raised expectations, DTC is now investing in more expert production management. “I’m just anxious to keep it going,” Martin continued. “There’s no endowment for this theatre. There was an endowment, and it got totally spent down before I came here five years ago, and I’d like to have a little breathing room and be able to make some investments. I can’t afford a mistake, let’s just put it that way.”
Control Your Space, Control Your Destiny
In 2013 the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe was in the midst of a capital campaign to buy the performance space they were then renting. Successful with this campaign, they held another in FY16 to renovate the space. Leach found ownership of the venue transformational. “I do think one of the main things is owning your own building,” she said. “You control your destiny as a theatre so much better when you’re not paying rent to a landlord for your building.”
This year’s Theatre Facts shows that plenty of theatres would agree. In 2016, 50 percent of the Trend Theatres owned their performance space, and 49 percent owned their office space—increases of 3 and 4 percent, respectively, from 2012. Those few extra percentage points may not seem like a lot, but to some companies, owning a space—whether performance or office—is a big deal.
Renting space, meanwhile, remains common, though it’s on the decline. In 2016, 38 percent of the Trend Theatres rented performance space, down from 43 percent in 2012, and 40 percent rented office space, down from 45 percent.
EgoPo is in the latter cohort, renting its performance space from the Latvian Society, which features a bar area for patrons to mingle before and after performances. Thanks to an FY15 grant from the Wyncote Foundation, the theatre updated the performance space with lighting and sound equipment and soft goods. “We got that grant both to increase what we could do as a company and to benefit the larger theatre community so that other people could rent the space or our equipment,” said managing director Freed. “That both makes it easier for those small companies to put on a quality theatre production, but also gives us some extra earned income,” added Freed. “Our biggest increased source of earned income outside box office has been rentals.”
Round House Theatre doesn’t own its facilities, exactly. Rather, Zakreski explained, “We receive our theatre, our administrative office, and education center in-kind from Montgomery County. For the theatre we have to pay what would be the equivalent of rent into a building reserve. But eventually that money gets reinvested into the building with capital expenses.”
Owning your space or being able to rent it out does, of course, come with downsides. When Bud Martin arrived at DTC in 2013, the theatre was in so much debt that he decided to mortgage the building, which had originally been given to the theatre by the city of Wilmington. Martin said, “Between facility costs and mortgage interest and principal reduction, it costs about $250,000 to operate the building. The fact that I’ve got to do that before anything else is a hard pill to swallow.”
Cal Shakes’s Falk has similar concerns. “We maintain two separate facilities: our performance venue, the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, and our office/production/rehearsal space in Berkeley,” she said. “While our rent is very cheap at the Bruns (we’re on land owned by our water district, and have a very reasonable long-term lease), we have to truck water in and sewage out, so operating there gets costly. And our rent in Berkeley, while under market rate, is still very high. In general, we’ve not been able to grow revenue at the same pace as our expenses are increasing, so we’ve felt like we’re spreading ourselves thinner and thinner.”
Make a Lot With What You’ve Got
It isn’t news that theatremakers are old hands at turning the resources they have into pure stage magic. But with theatres feeling the ever-increasing pinch of expenses, they’re looking hard at how to make the most of who and what they have.
Bud Martin is no stranger to this. DTC was about to close when he arrived, so he consolidated many administrative and production positions (taking full-time staff from 24 to 11), outsourced set builds, and brought in overhire for load-ins. This strategy for allocating resources has persisted, affecting everything from season planning to costuming. While Diner got the Broadway treatment with set automation, DTC used resources from other theatres and from Theatre Development Fund’s Costume Collection to put together 1950s costumes for its cast of 24.
At the Guthrie, FY16 was a year for examining capacity utilization. Theatre Facts reveals that total in-residence capacity utilization for Trend Theatres (i.e., how much of the theatre’s available seats were filled) held roughly steady at between 73 and 74 percent each year. Paid percentage of capacity was roughly 63 percent each year. “We looked at each production,” said managing director Bielstein, “and really drilled down on exactly the numbers of performances that we thought we would need to maximize our resources. We were able to increase our capacity utilization across the board, which was great, because we know that leads to a better experience for our patrons, which hopefully sees them coming back. It’s also a better experience for our artists the fuller the houses are.”
The Guthrie also reconfigured its annual fundraising gala to maximize resources. “We used to produce the gala as a separately programmed event with its own curated evening of art and entertainment,” she said. “In fiscal ’16, we moved to make it a celebration around the opening night of our big summer musical. So we saw some really great results and excitement around that. People love seeing that opening night. It also saved us on the expense side because we weren’t producing a separate program for it.”
EgoPo took a hard look at its annual campaign strategy before making cost-saving decisions. “We made a lot of strategic cuts to our annual campaign while bringing in more income,” Freed said. “We had been sending annual campaign letters to a lot of people that had very minimal contact with the company. We saved a lot of money by not sending to everyone who had contact with the theatre, just because they’re so much less likely to give. At the same time our donations went up, our costs went way down. I think we’ve become more and more efficient with our fundraising dollars. The return on investment has been going up as we’ve fine-tuned our targeting.”
APT has a unique challenge every year with maximizing casting because of its rotating repertory season. Its leaders try to find a mix of plays that will make the most of the number of actors they can hire in a given season. Keeping this mind, they try not to cast an actor in more than three shows.
Capital Campaigns Bolster Resources
Forty-one percent of the Trend Theatres were engaged in a capital campaign during 2016, the highest percentage in the five-year period. These campaigns raised funds to build and renovate facilities, create and shore up endowment and reserve funds, update equipment and/or technology, secure artistic/programming funds, and more. Fifteen Trend Theatres even held back-to-back campaigns, usually raising funds for different purposes.
WBTT—which bought its space in 2013—is in the midst of another campaign to renovate the campus. “That purchase came with two buildings,” said Leach, “and we’re renovating the campus and raising $6 million to do that. We’re at $4.2 million right now. The front building on our property will be our education and outreach center, and that’ll take about half the money. So we can do that while we’re still running the theatre, and when we have to do the theatre renovation, we’ll have to shut down for the summer.”
At DTC, capital campaign funds were split into two pots: one for basic building maintenance and the other for what they’re calling a new ventures fund.
“It’s for shows that have significant budgets,” said DTC’s Martin, “and (commercial) producers aren’t going to give me that much money in enhancement, so we have to put more money toward the show than we normally would. But we know that that’s also what brings people. One of the local foundations actually kicked off that fund with a $300,000 grant because I told them that Jersey Boys used to pay La Jolla Playhouse $3 million a year in royalties. So if one of these things becomes a Broadway show and is successful, the royalty income that you can get as a developing theatre can be significant, can actually replace the new venture fund. The foundation loved the idea of trying to create something that might be sustaining.”
For its capital campaign, APT “rebuilt our main theatre, we added some support buildings, we renovated the lobby. It was quite an extensive project, and we did the work on it over the last winter,” said managing director Carrie Van Hallgren. All this after a capital campaign that saw the company build another thea-tre in 2009, in the midst of the recession.
Over at 5th Avenue, Griffin said, “We did have a capital campaign in ’15-16 where we raised money for a new sound system, carpet in the lobby, and a refurnishing of some existing bathrooms.” They met their $5 million goal on time and on budget. Griffin continued, “The biggest thing for us was the sound system, which was antiquated, getting in the way of producing quality musical thea-tre because people couldn’t hear the frickin’ lyrics. The basis of the system was from the early ’90s, and then it was very piecemeal from there to now because we never had the money coming out of operations to fund that. That was a big deal.”
Corporate Giving Is Changing
A recurring thread: Corporations aren’t giving the way they used to. From 2012 to 2016, the average number of corporations that donated per Trend Theatre decreased from 23 in 2012 to 21 in 2016. At the same time, the average corporate gift rose annually. Further, 47 percent of theatres actually saw higher inflation-adjusted corporate support in 2016 than in 2012.
So what’s going on? Well, in part, a fair share of those corporate gifts are earmarked for capital campaigns and education programs, areas that offer corporations more visibility.
That’s what Zakreski at Round House observed. “With corporate giving, you’re seeing two things,” he said. “You’re seeing a blurring of the lines between philanthropy and marketing. The organizations that have bigger scale, who can provide more in terms of logo recognition, entertainment, and hospitality, are thriving.”
“The other trend,” he continued, “is that corporate philanthropy is being more and more dealt with as corporate social responsibility. So corporations are finding ways to align their philanthropy with their organization’s goals or the needs of the industry that they work in. It does mean there’s not quite as much corporate money flowing to the arts as there has been in prior decades.”
The Guthrie’s Bielstein has noticed the same thing in the Twin Cities, which are host to 17 Fortune 500 companies. “We’re starting to see corporations shift their areas of focus,” she said, “where either they are eliminating the arts as priority, reducing the arts as a priority, or needing to distribute their funds more broadly because they’re doing business in other markets, whether nationally or globally. That is impacting those of us with companies who are headquartered in our communities.”
Crossroads’ Jones is wary of some of these changing practices. “Prudential Foundation is headquartered in Newark, and they’ve stopped giving money to the arts,” he noted. “What they’re doing is offering interest-free loans to be able to, as they like to say, allow executive directors to sleep at night with cash-flow issues. But there’s not an investment, other than the fact that, you know, ‘Here’s some money. You don’t have to pay interest on it, but we want it back.’ Johnson & Johnson is partnering with the Taproot Foundation, and what they do is they specialize in providing pro bono services for nonprofits. So again, it’s kind of looking for how to leverage your dollars as more of an investment rather than a philanthropic gift.”
Where Individuals Count
Average total contributed income was 22.3 percent higher in 2016 than in 2012 (after adjusting for inflation) and supported nearly 5 percent more of Trend Theatres’ total expenses. Individuals were, by far, the greatest source of that contributed income. Average combined individual contributions from trustees and non-trustees rose annually, and five-year growth outpaced inflation by a vigorous 43 percent. Trustee giving alone increased more than any other revenue source between 2012 and 2016, and contributions from non-trustee individuals covered 13.1 percent of total expenses in 2016—the highest of the five-year period and the most of any of the contributed income sources.
“We definitely saw a very large increase in individual contributions between FY15 and FY16,” said EgoPo’s Freed. She attributed the increase to EgoPo’s subscription model, which brings together subscriptions, perks, and donations into one package. “Donors want to give,” Freed said. “Allowing them to do so in a way that feels useful to the theatre, in a way that gives them the satisfaction of giving as opposed to trying to pry it out of their hands—I think that model helps us be successful at that.”
At Round House, Zakreski credited the growth of individual giving to the “great art, well marketed” mindset he learned while working at the Kennedy Center. He’s applied that mantra to his role at Round House. “The fact that we were getting great critical reviews in fiscal ’16 and building audiences gets people excited. People want to ride the winning horse.”
Guthrie’s Bielstein is looking to the future. “That’s where we see the potential for growth: in individuals,” she said. “We’re really fortunate to be in a community that has a high level of participation in the arts. That really helps with our numbers, whether it’s with ticket buyers or with fundraising—being in a community and culture that really holds that as a high value.”
Educate, Reach Out, Engage
Theatres are also increasingly investing in community engagement, and education and outreach programs are at the center of those efforts. In 2016 such programs pulled in a five-year high in earned income (a rise of 25.8 percent above inflation from 2012) and served an average of 19,715 people—also a five-year high and an increase of 16 percent from 2012. About two-thirds of education/outreach income came from training programs that targeted people of all ages, while one-third came from programs specific to youth.
Penobscot’s Budd gave some examples of their efforts to engage underserved audiences. “We performed scenes from our season opener Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at the Charleston Correctional Facility, in the spirit of Cash, who famously entertained the incarcerated. Correctional officers and inmates warmly welcomed our artists, sharing that such occasions to enjoy live music were rare and much appreciated. We invited local law enforcement officials, firefighters, other first responders, and their families to attend a special free preview performance of the full show at the Bangor Opera House.”
For Castillo, the goal of human development via theatre is baked into their mission. “All of our youth programs and adult programs are to help people become more worldly, to be more exposed to how things work, and what our options are,” said managing director Stiles. “Castillo kind of serves as the town hall for all of that. It’s not unusual to have somebody from a homeless shelter sitting next to a seasoned business professional. That’s kind of our audience.” Castillo staff members also attend various street fairs and go into the city’s schools to promote their productions and education programs. Many of those programs are free for students.
“We aim to serve Chicago’s LGBTQ population,” said About Face’s Zalas, “although a significant percentage of our audience also identifies as allies. Outside of our mainstage productions, we also provide year-round youth theatre workshops to LGBTQ youth ages 14-23, which culminates in a major public performance each summer. Our education department further devises a world premiere each year addressing LGBTQ issues, which tours to schools and other organizations throughout the year to raise awareness and lead discussions.”
WBTT initiated a couple of new education programs during FY16. “The first one is an in-school touring program called Jazzlinks,” said Leach. “We visit area high schools with a team of folks that do songs and talk about the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration and a lot of things that happened in the early 20th century with African-American lives. In the summer, we started a summer theatre intensive program for ages 13-18. We’ve set it up to be free for the students by getting underwriting, and we focus on underserved kids to the extent we can.”
The Guthrie hired a director of community engagement at the end of FY16 who has since created a community advisory network. “For us,” said Bielstein, “a very important part of our director of community engagement’s work is that we let the other community members we’re working with drive the engagement process, versus imposing something that we might assume or perceive it should be. Again, just listening and learning and responding.”
For many theatres, civic engagement isn’t simply a form of outreach but a necessity. “One of the things I realized during the recession,” said Crossroads’ Jones, “was the importance of partnerships and the importance of being able to align yourselves with like-minded organizations. Not just other theatres, but other arts organizations, other community organizations. That is vital to our success.”
Theresa J. Beckhusen is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities.