In conjunction with the release of Theatre Communications Group’s Theatre Facts 2018, we spoke with 12 managing leaders from a diverse group of theatres across the country about swings in ticket sales, developing and diversifying contributed income, and building and maintaining audiences.
Theatre Facts 2018 is the 39th edition of TCG’s annual in-depth industry report based on data from the TCG Fiscal Survey. Written by Zannie Giraud Voss, Glenn B. Voss, and Daniel Fonner of SMU DataArts, and Ilana B. Rose and Laurie Baskin of TCG, the report gives theatremakers and theatre lovers the opportunity to examine financial, performance, and attendance data for the U.S. professional not-for-profit theatre field from three perspectives:
The Universe section offers a broad overview of the U.S. professional not-for-profit theatre field in 2018, which included an estimated 1,855 organizations.
The Trend Theatres section explores changes over time, with longitudinal analysis of the 119 TCG Member Theatres that participated in the Fiscal Survey yearly since 2014, and includes data for 88 theatres that have participated yearly since 2009.
The Profiled Theatres section provides a detailed examination of data from all 177 TCG Fiscal Survey 2018 participants (TCG Member Theatres that provided data for fiscal years concluding anytime between Oct. 31, 2017, and Sept. 30, 2018) and breaks down 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).
Theatre Facts reports can be downloaded here.
All references to the Trend Theatres that follow denote the five-year analysis, unless otherwise specified, and all references to growth figures reflect inflation-adjusted growth. Subscriptions refer to subscription and memberships.
The Rise of Single Tickets
Subscriptions and single tickets represented the primary sources of earned income for Trend Theatres in every year from 2014 through 2018, but they experienced very different growth patterns over the period. After reaching a five-year high in 2017, average subscription income fell to a five-year low in 2018. Overall it declined by 6.8 percent over those years. Average single ticket income, on the other hand, increased annually, with 6.9 percent growth over the period. This trend is mirrored in ticket sales figures: Both the average number of subscribers and the average number of subscription tickets sold declined annually; respectively, they were 11.7 percent and 13.0 percent lower in 2018 than in 2014. And after a decline from 2014 to 2015, the average number of single tickets sold increased annually and was 2.3 percent higher in 2018 than at the beginning of the period.
Chris Jennings, executive director for the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., corroborated this finding, saying he’s seen a steady decline in subscriptions over the last 10 years, while, in fiscal year 2018, the company saw the highest single-ticket sales in their history.
Noting the increased pressure on single-ticket sales, Jennings was quick to add a caveat. “In that exact same season we had two shows that were our lowest-selling shows as well,” he says. The two highest-selling shows were ones with great name recognition, Camelot and Hamlet.
“What we’re seeing is that the marketplace doesn’t respond to just good, adventurous art, but wants a product they understand, know, and have comfort in,” Jennings continued. “That’s the hard part. Yes, we can do those productions, but we want to balance them with artistic risk. And if the artistic risk is going to continue to be dependent on single-ticket sales, and if the single-ticket sales aren’t going to show up, that’s the really difficult nature of what the theatre is facing right now.”
In the face of unreliable single-ticket revenue, the decline in a solid base of subscribers is particularly concerning for many theatres. The news, though, is not all bad. Theatre Facts shows that, of the Trend Theatres that sold subscriptions every year, 45.1 percent actually increased their subscription income over the period. Of the Trend Theatres that reported subscriptions at the beginning and end of the period, 37 percent had more subscribers in 2018 than in 2014.
At the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Jupiter, Fla., an increase in subscribers going into their fiscal year 2018 was followed by an even greater uptick in subscribers in the following season. Producing artistic director and chief executive Andrew Kato attributes that growth to an aggressive renewal campaign at the end of FY18.
“I jokingly say that we don’t stop attempting to get our subscribers back unless they tell us they hate us or they’re dead,” Kato said. One part of their effort, he said, includes choosing their next season early enough to have it in front of ticket buyers for the last two shows of the current season, with the marketing team on hand to assist with renewals.
Interestingly, Theatre Facts reports that the average subscription renewal rate for the Trend Theatres remained steady, in the 74 to 75 percent range. The decline in average subscription sales, then, suggests that theatres are having less trouble keeping subscribers than acquiring them.
Raphael Parry, executive and artistic director of Shakespeare Dallas, has watched his company slowly move from an earned income percentage that sat around 25 percent of their total income to a percentage closer to 45 percent. With that movement came a step away from the idea of Shakespeare being free for all, a core belief of the company in the early 2000s. Now, Parry said, they try to base their ticket prices on what people would pay if they were going to a movie. They also make sure to include pay-what-you-can donation nights to make sure their work remains accessible. “It’s really challenging to generate a huge earned-income amount when you have such low ticket prices,” Parry said. “So we kind of depend on volume.”
Shakespeare Dallas has also seen an increase in memberships (and a decline in single tickets), which Parry attributes to the overall value they’re able to provide with each membership. Memberships allow audience members to see plays multiple times. Shakespeare Dallas’s amphitheatre contains no fixed seating, and all that open space makes it easy for members to make their evenings about more than just the play.
“They bring their picnic baskets, and they really spread out and make it kind of an event,” Parry said. “With two shows in the summer, one in the fall, they’ll come multiple times and bring guests and friends. They might see the same production two or three times just because it’s a kind of event, versus going to see a theatrical play and sitting in a seat.”
North Coast Repertory Theatre’s subscribers make up between 40 and 50 percent of ticket holders, and North Coast managing director Bill Kerlin credits the Solana Beach, Calif., company’s subscription success to artistic director David Ellenstein’s relationship with subscribers. “They have a lot of faith in what David’s going to put onstage,” Kerlin said. “I think that’s by far the biggest reason we do so well with subscriptions.” Kerlin added, “They do get a very deep discount to subscribe.”
In fact, Kerlin noted that successful subscription sales involve something of a trade-off. On the one hand, there’s knowing that you have 50 percent of your house sold before you even start your season. On the other hand, single tickets typically sell for more money.
Theatre Facts actually shows that the average subscription ticket price was higher than the average single-ticket price offered in three of the five years. Over the period, though, the average single-ticket price offered increased by 9.1 percent, while the average subscription ticket price had a smaller increase of 2.3 percent. For the Trend Theatres, the average lowest discount offered to subscribers in 2018 was 11.8 percent and the average highest discount was 41.4 percent.
While total average ticket income showed slight growth (less than 1 percent) over the five years, it supported 3.5 percent less of total expenses in 2018 than in 2014. With ticket sales so open to fluctuation and expenses continuing to increase—11 percent overall over the five-year period—there’s ever increasing pressure on contributed income and steady donor bases.
The Power of the Individual
“With fluctuating revenues or declining revenues, all across the country, we’re seeing individual giving really becoming more and more important,” noted the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Jennings. “While it’s great that so many individuals are stepping up, I’m concerned that it’s putting us at great risk.”
To Jennings’s point, Theatre Facts shows that individuals made up the largest source of contributed funds every year. Giving from trustees grew by 9.4 percent from 2014 to 2018 (though the numbers decreased in the last two years of that span), while donations from non-trustee individuals saw an overall increase of 21.4 percent. (It is important to note that Theatre Facts looks at unrestricted contributed income for both operating and non-operating purposes, such as capital campaigns.) Combined, average giving from individuals was 17.4 percent higher in 2018 than in 2014, and in 2018 those donations supported nearly 20 percent of the average Trend Theatre’s expenses.
“Of our total fundraising,” Jennings continued, “50 percent is individual giving. And the scary figure to me is that 50 percent of that individual giving comes from 1 percent of our individual donor base. So there is a small group of donors who are carrying a large weight for the theatre, and all it takes is one or two of them to go away and you have a significant hole in operations.”
Jennings said he hopes the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s efforts toward planned giving and multiyear gifts and commitments can help minimize the risk. “But it’s still a risk,” he concluded. Adding to the danger are new federal tax laws that directly affect the critical middle tier of individual donors by diminishing an important tax incentive for giving.
To mitigate this risk, Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vt., has spent the past few years exploring an expanded philanthropy model for their company, started by former managing director Eric Bunge and continued by his successor, Irene Green. The goal has been to move away from relying on earned income and toward a deeper and more passionate relationship with donors.
“One of the things that Northern Stage has really worked on over the past six years has been broadening and strengthening our donor pyramid, so that we don’t have a peaky donor pyramid,” Green said. “Instead, we have a broad base of support with a lot of people contributing what they can.”
Green also mentioned that the theatre is balancing this strategy with some major foundation funding that shifted the company’s contributed and earned-income balance from roughly 60 percent earned to 60 percent contributed. Theatre Facts shows that, on average, foundation giving was 18.7 percent higher in 2018 than it was in 2014, with 69 percent of theatres seeing their foundation support grow over the five years.
That said, Green has been challenging her board, staff, and leadership to think about how the company can still reach their goals of greater contributed income without the major foundation support included in the calculation.
“Even though we are so fortunate to receive this funding, and shepherd it very carefully, and want to continue to build that relationship,” Green explained, “we want to make sure the organization is in good operating order and not dependent on any one single source of income.”
The positive news is that Theatre Facts shows that, in addition to an increase in dollars, the average number of non-trustee donors per theatre grew to 1,715 in 2018 (from 1,430 in 2014). For some companies, however, they’ve seen the growth in the number of donors, but the contribution increase hasn’t followed.
“The overall pool has grown,” said Keith Gerth, executive and artistic director of Oil Lamp Theater in Glenview, Ill. “The absolute number of donors has grown, but the total giving has not grown. So as our sales have gone up exponentially, our donations have not.”
The challenge, Gerth explained, is that as a small organization, they can get too busy with their productions to cultivate and nurture donor relationships to the extent that is really necessary.
Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia says that donor relationships are key, particularly for a theatre like theirs, which creates ensemble-devised works. As managing director Maya Choldin explained, Pig Iron relies on project-based donations, asking donors and foundations to specifically fund projects they’re passionate about or projects that speak to them. While the theatre benefits from the generosity donors offer when they feel a personal connection with a project, Choldin noted, it can be a challenge to ensure that it does not come at the cost of support for other needs.
“In a moment when you’re feeling like there’s an emergency on a project,” said Choldin, “you might go to a donor and ask for funding for that project without thinking through the repercussions that might have on their next gift.”
For example, she continued, if there’s a donor who usually gives money every year in March for general operating funds, and then the company, in a bind, goes to them in September to fund an October project, the organization may get to next March and realize that donor doesn’t intend to give again.
“You don’t feel like you can go back to them a second time, because you’ve overextended that relationship,” Choldin concluded. “So you have to be really careful when you’re doing the project-based funding asks to donors.”
In Atlanta, Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company is working to improve their individual giving numbers. Managing director Chandra Stephens-Albright is happy with the company’s balance between earned income and contributed income (with contributed accounting for 60 percent of their income). However, when she looks at the numbers, she sees a struggle familiar to Black and Latinx organizations: a need for growth surrounding individual giving.
While Theatre Facts shows that the average Trend Theatre received about 41 percent of its contributed income from individuals in 2018, True Colors Theatre Company only saw that percentage hovering around 12 percent. For some of their peer theatres of color, Stephens-Albright said, that number is even lower. She’d like to increase that percentage to 20 percent while keeping earned income steady. One step the company (and Stephens-Albright’s predecessor) made was changing a major interaction they had with donors: canceling their annual golf tournament and gala and replacing it with a thank-you brunch.
“Instead of having people buy tickets to an event, they would give money through the year,” said Stephens-Albright. “It was amazing. The first was in 2017-18, and we saw a big increase in individual gifts. We also had very positive feedback from our funders.”
A Fair Contribution
Managing director Steve Martin finds himself in a difficult dance with income at Childsplay in Tempe, Ariz. As a theatre primarily geared toward children, Childsplay has offered $10 tickets. That means they wind up needing to underwrite their shows three to one, Martin explained.
“We haven’t raised our ticket prices in six or seven years,” Martin said. “Our fees and ticket prices have to go up in order to be able to cover even just basic inflation for us. But we also know that, regardless of how much we raise our ticket prices, the gap continues to widen between earned revenue and what we need to make to succeed.”
This means dramatically increasing contributed income, Martin continued. The trouble: donor turnover.
“It’s been difficult for us to maintain a deep donor pool,” Martin said. “Our donors age out as quickly as our audience members age out. So when they stop personally engaging with us because their kids are 13 or 14 years old, they move their cultural dollars to programs they want to support: The [larger resident] theatre, the opera, the ballet, the symphony, whatever the case may be.”
Though Childsplay has implemented new programs, and legacy giving, sustained giving, and major-donor giving are all helping, they’re still coming up short, Martin said.
While individuals and foundations are the most significant sources of contributed income, theatres also rely on donations from various other sources. Theatre Facts shows that even though the average Trend Theatre generated more earned income than contributed income in every year except 2016, average earned income grew by 10.9 percent between 2014 and 2018—slightly less than expense growth—while average contributed income rose by 18.6 percent. On top of that, there were increases in nearly every category of contributed income.
Of the Trend Theatres that reported corporate income in both 2014 and 2018, 44 percent saw increased corporate support. But when Childsplay approaches corporate donors, it receives significantly less than other theatres because, as Martin put it, corporations think, “Well, you perform for children, you don’t need as much.”
“That’s kind of shocking to me,” Martin said, because the same donors also consistently give feedback that “our children deserve the best playwrights, the best actors, the best directors.” Martin continued, “It’s a very interesting kind of disconnect that goes on. Even though they come and see the shows, and see how well received and how well produced they are, they still think they’re kids’ shows. So they give us child-sized grants.”
Childsplay isn’t the only company struggling with corporate donations. For Shakespeare Dallas, corporate contributions didn’t pan out the way they expected, according to Parry. Through 2015, those contributions amounted to roughly 10 percent of their overall income.
“Some major shifts started in 2016 that we didn’t recognize, and then they carried on into 2017,” Parry continued. “Then, frankly, there was a lot of financial difficulty for some of the corporations we were getting sponsored by, so they shifted their funding philosophy from giving locally to giving internationally, and kind of spreading their sponsorship dollars into more micro channels, which resulted in, for us, losing several major sponsors in the $20,000 range. Ultimately, it ended up creating a funding gap that we couldn’t overcome.”
If You Build It, Will They Come?
A theatre’s location can be both a positive and a negative when it comes to securing contributed income, attracting audiences, and managing operating costs. North Coast Rep’s location, for instance, is “a double-edged sword,” according to Kerlin. “Sitting about a half a mile outside of San Diego’s city limits, North Coast Rep doesn’t qualify for funding from the city of San Diego. However, a big part of our appeal is the fact that we are the professional theatre company that’s in North County San Diego. The people that live in North County, who are some of the wealthiest people in the county, consider us the theatre they go to now. So we get that benefit. Yeah, we might pick up some city funding if we were more south, but we might lose some of our North County attendees.”
Similarly, Oil Lamp sits a few miles outside Chicago’s border, in a suburban location chosen both for the community it provided and the distance it gave Oil Lamp from a Chicago market saturated with small and midsized theatre companies.
“There’s not a lot of competition right in this area, and we can give people an opportunity to enjoy theatre without having to schlep into the city,” Gerth said. “Our patrons really like that. They’re able to come see a quality show here and not have to pay all the expenses and deal with the frustration of having to go into the city.”
Additionally, Gerth points out, the community boasts great, well-funded high school theatre programs; it felt like a natural fit for the company to situate itself in a community that supported the arts. Now, some years after their 2012 move, Oil Lamp is achieving a new record in ticket sales each year.
According to Theatre Facts, that has not been the experience for the field as a whole. Aggregate attendance for in-residence productions was 3.0 percent lower in 2018 than in 2014. Also, as noted earlier, an increase from 2014 to 2018 in the average number of single tickets sold was counteracted by more significant decreases in the average numbers of subscription tickets and packages sold. Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) believes that location has played a significant role in the subscription decline they’ve seen.
“The No. 1 reason that we heard from patrons was: It’s too hard to get there,” said Becky Witmer, ACT’s managing director. “It’s really about being downtown, traffic, parking, and a perception of safety being an issue in downtown Seattle.”
Witmer noted that being in downtown Seattle does offer them a fresh market, with tens of thousands of people choosing to live there. On the other hand, she pointed out, it is particularly expensive to market in the high-rise community, and new residents aren’t necessarily consuming local media, so those people are difficult to reach.
ACT’s building, the Eagles Auditorium Building (currently known as Kreielsheimer Place), is a Seattle landmark built in the 1920s; the building is the company’s greatest strength, Witmer said, as well as sometimes its greatest challenge. She was referring not only to the location but to the fact that ACT owns and operates 80 percent of the structure’s eight stories, which include theatres, event spaces, administrative offices, and rehearsal halls, plus costume, scene, and prop shops. “Operationally, it is a very expensive building to manage, from utilities to staffing, as well as programming,” Witmer said. “We have a lot of different spaces to keep filled and vibrant all of the time.”
One thing Witmer said she wishes she could change is the arrangement with the apartments in the building. Currently, ACT partners with a separate organization to manage the apartments, which were renovated and mandated as low-income housing by the city. It’s an arrangement that Witmer said they are proud of, since there is a list of people who need access to affordable housing. But if she could, she would rewrite the contract so that the theatre “could have access to two of the apartments, because we don’t have any artist housing.” Putting up performers from out of town from rehearsals through the end of a run costs the organization around $10,000 per actor, she estimated.
Theatre Facts reveals that average general artistic non-payroll expenses—which include artist housing—were 2.1 percent higher in 2018 than in 2014, and other facilities-related costs played even more significant roles in the average Trend Theatre’s budget. Average non-payroll expenses related to buildings and equipment grew by 7.0 percent over the period, with increases every year, and they accounted for roughly 9 percent of Trend Theatres’ average total expenses annually. On top of that, theatres have to factor in depreciation, which alone accounted for roughly 5 percent of average total expenses annually, and which increased by 9.2 percent between 2014 and 2018. It is not surprising, then, that 45 percent of the Trend Theatres were in the midst of some kind of capital campaign in 2018.
Shakespeare Theatre Company is one. Jennings said that during FY18 they were in the early stages of gearing up for a capital campaign to help cover costs related to the company’s leadership transition, as longtime artistic leader Michael Kahn prepared to retire at the end of the the following year. Also included in that capital campaign was money to address the high costs of operating in Washington, D.C.
“Twenty percent of our budget is our occupancy cost,” Jennings said. “We own some of our facilities; some of them are rented. We are hoping that by owning them and consolidating them that we are going to cut a percentage of those occupancy costs to help with the budget.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Childsplay. The company, hit hard by the recession 11 years ago, didn’t really feel the economy bounce back fully, and certainly not as quickly as they hoped. One issue they grappled with was cash flow, and they are not alone. Theatre Facts shows that both average working capital and the average working capital ratio were negative each year from 2014 through 2018. Basically, these numbers indicate that, for the average Trend Theatre, cash-flow crunches were the norm, and, in the event that a theatre needed to survive on its existing resources, there were not enough readily available to meet operating expenses.
The slightly encouraging news is that average working capital was at its least negative level in 2018, and the number of Trend Theatres that reached the generally recommended benchmark of a 25 percent working capital ratio, or three months of readily available funds, increased from 14 theatres in 2014 to 24 theatres in 2018. Also, Theatre Facts reports that the average Change in Unrestricted Net Assets (CUNA) was positive from 2014 through 2018, meaning that the Trend Theatres as a group ended each year in the black. Moreover, between 55 and 62 percent of Trend Theatres each year broke even or ended the year with some degree of surplus. Ideally, this positive outcome enables theatres to pay off debt and build reserves.
Childsplay reports that they were able to fix their cash-flow issues, though doing so required making hard decisions related to their facilities. “We have a fairly sizable working capital reserve,” Martin said. “But I have to tell you, that was 18 months of a lot of heartache, because we sold our building back to the city of Tempe, and then we signed a long-term, 50-year lease. But we took care of the cash-flow problem by doing that.”
Beyond the Stage
After a decline from 2014 to 2015, Theatre Facts shows that average earned income has grown since then, with a 3.1 percent increase from 2017 to 2018 and 10.9 percent increase from 2014 to 2018. The biggest driver of that increase was in “other earned income”—income from sources other than ticket sales and investments—which grew by 45.1 percent. This development highlights the variety of strategies theatres are employing to increase their earned income potential.
The Maltz Jupiter Theatre and Pig Iron both have schools that factor heavily into their earned income and their overall expenses. Theatre Facts shows that average earned income alone from education/outreach programs grew by 13.2 percent from 2014 to 2018. It also shows that non-payroll expenses related to education/outreach programs increased by 25 percent over the five years.
Said the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Kato, “The theatre has been successful enough over the last five, 10 years that we’re able to run our school at a loss. Education is a huge part of our mission.”
That dedication ties into the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Believe Capital Campaign, which will double the size of their school. Additionally, the capital campaign will create three stories of production facilities, make their stage equipped to launch pre-Broadway shows, and add a second stage to allow for more program diversity. “Right now we do a fairly populist season,” Kato said. “But having a second space would allow us to create other opportunities for people who like different kinds of theatre.” Achieving this goal would tie nicely into all three aspects of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s mission to “entertain, educate, and inspire our community.”
Pig Iron’s Choldin shared that her company doesn’t carry any debt, whic allows them to pump much of their earned income directly back into the school. This is part of their effort to pay a reasonable wage to artists who teach for them and to compensate people appropriately for the time they put in. “If we were just operating as a school,” Choldin said, “our cash flow would be the appropriate amount of tight. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly something we can manage.”
Theatre Facts also showed that roughly 88 percent of theatres earned income from renting out their space, and average rental income grew by 7.1 percent from 2014 to 2018. Cynthia Fuhrman, managing director at Portland Center Stage in Oregon, said that only about 6 percent of the theatre’s income derives from sources other than contributed income or ticket sales, and that 6 percent includes rentals. “I think we feel we’re a little stuck at that number,” Fuhrman said, “because our mission and priority are the productions. There’s a certain cap on how much we can ever expect to earn in rentals, short of significantly changing our production calendar.”
Constants and Variables
Theatre Facts shows a growth in expenses that includes a 14.1 percent increase in average total payroll from 2014 to 2018, with double-digit increases in all three categories of personnel: artistic, administrative, and production/technical. Payroll also accounted for a greater percentage of theatres’ expenses over time, rising from 54.9 percent of average total expenses in 2014 to 56.5 percent in 2018.
“We are a human-resource industry,” Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Jennings said. “In the last five years, we’ve seen our human-resource expenses grow from 45 percent of the budget to 51 percent of the budget. That certainly means that the other 6 percent is being reduced elsewhere. That is a hard reality to manage. Underneath that figure as well is that health costs have gone up 61 percent for us in four years.”
Health care and cost-of-living increases only partly account for the rising expenses, however. Theatre Facts also reveals that the average number of full- and part-time personnel was at a five-year high in 2018, and the average number of total paid personnel (year-round, seasonal, and jobbed-in) rose from 257 in 2014 to 281 in 2018.
One thing that can have a major effect on expenses is a leadership transition. Portland Center Stage was already in its second quarter when artistic director Chris Coleman announced his decision to leave the company to lead the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company. As Fuhrman described, Coleman’s departure had effects throughout the company, including a sudden need to fund a national search for a new artistic director.
“We were able to fundraise to cover those costs,” Fuhrman said. “If we were already struggling to get our current fundraising base to be fully committed, I don’t know how you do this.” Fuhrman also said it would have been helpful to have some extra fundraising muscle so they could cultivate bridge money to cover the transition from Coleman to current artistic director Marissa Wolf. Even without the additional support, however, Furhman said they were able to fundraise for the search process itself.
Another result was that PCS wound up pushing back a strategic planning project they had just started when Coleman made his announcement. “It did delay our strategic planning process by 20 months,” Fuhrman said. That delay meant they would have to press pause on discussions of “a capital campaign or any other kind of campaign per se.”
Meanwhile in Seattle, ACT found itself in the second year of programming by new artistic director John Langs—a year that Witmer said offered a boost of confidence for the company. ACT saw an additional $70,000 in subscriptions come in, and the season opener, Tribes by Nina Raine, exceeded their single-ticket goal by $30,000. “It really was a standout year,” Witmer said, “where we met just about every goal in our operating budget and came in under, which is just extraordinary.”
A Reason and a Way
For many theatres, bringing in wider and more diverse audiences seems to boil down to finding ways to give people a reason and an opportunity to connect more deeply with the art onstage. For a company like the TEAM in Brooklyn, led by its artistic director, Tony-winning director Rachel Chavkin, that can mean simply spending time in the communities outside their home city to develop relationships. Then, as producing director Alexandra Lalonde explained, it involves opening up works in progress to allow audiences to see what the company is working on.
Lalonde detailed one production, Primer for a Failed Superpower, which offered an activism fair and pizza party after the performances, at which partner organizations were invited to set up tables, take the stage, and talk about the work they were doing in the community and how individuals could get involved.
“Those kinds of organizational and institutional partnerships were beautifully effective in terms of not just getting audience members to the show,” Lalonde said, “but also deepening the experience of the show itself and the process of building it. The whole goal of that production was this phrase: How we make it is as important as what we make. The process was very much as important, if not more important, than the product for that show.”
At Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, that means having a community conversation, generally scheduled on the Saturday after a production’s first rehearsal. These conversations aren’t necessarily geared toward current patrons of the theatre but toward those who may find a personal connection with the play’s subject matter, as managing director Stephens-Albright explained. One example, she said, was Dot by Colman Domingo, a play about three adult siblings and their mother, who is struggling to hold onto her memory.
“Our community conversation was with Emory Brain Health Center,” Stephens-Albright recalled. “We actually had people bring their special others who were suffering from dementia, and they were sitting in the room as we talked about dementia and its impact on families. So it’s not people that necessarily go to True Colors Theatre, it’s people that were clients of Emory Brain Health. They can see the connection between the art and their life.”
The next step, Stephens-Albright said, is working toward making these community relationships more permanent. It’s an opportunity for both organizations to help each other thrive and for True Colors to become even more integrated into the fabric of the Atlanta theatre scene. After all, as Stephens-Albright pointed out, “Development is less about asking people for money and more about giving people a reason to connect.”
Jerald Raymond Pierce, a former intern of this magazine, is a writer based in Chicago.
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