Friday, June 16, 2006

We don't know who WE are anymore

Last week was Theatre Communication Group's (TCG--the national service organization for non-profit professional theatre) Annual Conference. The theme, "Building Future Audience", represents the culimination of a seismic shift in thinking that has occured nationwide regarding the importance of understanding and engaging current and potential theatre audiences. For those on the outside looking in, this may seem like the ultimate in obliviousness. After all, from a business perspective, audience member = consumer. And, businesses have become increasingly more sophisticated at understanding and engaging customers over the last quarter century. But the reality is more a bit more nuanced than that.

Susan Booth, Artistic Director at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, describes the development of audience awareness in the theatre community over a similar time scale (from her introduction to one of the panel discussions):

Collective Epiphany #1:

We don’t spend time like we used to.

Robert Putnam told us we not only bowl alone, but that we don’t join. We don’t volunteer, we don’t plan and we don’t commit. Research told us that single ticket purchases were outstripping subscription purchases and we discovered that wasn’t a freak anomaly but a new way of existing. We perceive a diminishment of available leisure time and thereby have a resistance to spending it.

Everything pointed to the “we don’t have time” statement.

So we adapted: Restructured performance calendars and developed more elastic and changeable lengths of runs. Altered budget expectations. Made our pricing plans more flexible.

And we survived.

Collective Epiphany #2:

We don’t spend CHOICE like we used to.

With the advent of Tivo technology, individuated home pages, 600 satellite channels and Wikipedia, we became a society that never had to experience the unfamiliar or the undesired (these usually being interchangeable notions). Mark Shugoll’s market research for many of our theatres told us that our existing ways of selling and packaging our work to our audience didn’t reflect their desired means of participation any more.

Everything pointed to the “we want choice” statement.

So we adapted: Created flex passes. Devised “Build Your Own Season” subscriptions. Re-imagined membership. Learned to live with the concept of cherry-picking.

And we survived.

Collective Epiphany #3:

Uh oh. We don’t know who WE are anymore.

Except that WE are consumers and according to Guy Garcia’s book “The New Mainstream,” consumer economies have become the principle driver of social change. And if WE – the we we know – believe that we traffic in the realm of social change, then we better figure out who WE – the we we don’t seem to know so well because they’re not so readily coming in our doors – are. Because THEY are the very consumers driving that social change.

Everything points to a statement we need to listen to, rather than to make.

And we must, again, adapt. But perhaps, this time, we will not just survive, but thrive.

Compelling words coming from the artistic director of one of our foremost regional theatres. With the exception of various music and dance forms, theatre and spoken word performance has the shortest psychic distance to travel in order to connect with an audience; it provides the most direct reflection on the human condition. However, in service to our art, we have often caught ourselves in the trap of talking "at" or "above" our audience (the art of the insider) instead of engaging in two-way conversation. Where theatre is percieved as elitist, the underlying cause is the insider trap.

I'll go ahead and get it on the table that understanding an audience and engaging them in the creative process does not mean pandering to them. More on this in future posts.


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