This speech was presented at the opening session of the Audience Engagement track at this year’s TCG Conference in Dallas, June 6-8, 2013. The conference was designed on an academic theme, so each track was considered a “major.”

Dear Majors in Audience Engagement,

We all come to this conference with a basic understanding of what the term audience engagement means, or at least, has meant, in our field. But I am going to talk from a premise that reimagines the term through the lens of defining audience engagement not as marketing effort, but as an artistic act.

All of us here program a series of events designed to enrich the experience of the theatergoer, aimed at providing deeper value to the patron towards the outcome of ensuring long-term loyalty. We also program events to engage potential theatergoers–mixers for the hipsters, and what not. We all engage. Even when we are just putting on a play, we engage.

But to throw the ball further into a field where we can have some pretty progressive conversations in our arc, we need to let go of the conventional definitions of engagement as well as audience.

in 2011, the leadership team at Cal Shakes began the process we are now embarked on to experiment with new ways to increase the ways in which people in bay area communities can participate in Cal Shakes. Our impulse harkened back to 2006 during which we partnered for two years with San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts to create in collaboration with community members in Oakland–a new play that reimagined Hamlet in the drug ravaged landscape of that city in the late 80s. The process placed Oakland community members at the center of the artistic process alongside professional theater makers. The result forever changed our theater.

The Triangle Lab, Artists, Theaters, and Communities Making Change

3 years later, we chose to solidy our partnership with Intersection through our joint program called The Triangle Lab. Inspired by a paper by the James Irvine Foundation in California entitled Getting In On the Act, the lab’s focus was to transport audience engagement into something far more dramatic, the realm of art making.

To help illustrate, on the screen here is a nifty, anxiety-provoking chart – the Audience Involvement Spectrum – part of the Irvine report that draws an evolutionary line from engagement in the “receptve” arena to engagement in the “participatory” arena.

As we move to the right, we see the role of audience as spectactor transforming to that of audience as maker. Subsequently, we see engagement leave the realm of marketing and move into the artistic arena. And as I mentioned before, the more we move to the right, the more anxiety and protest we provoke. We cannot underestimate how scary it can feel to examine the possibilities in which the people who make up our audience are no longer just spectators, but participants in how we make theater, where we make theater, and–going into the deep end of the pool–what we make as theater and to what end.

Why is it scary???

For many of us, it’s because we are driven so beautifully by the desire to make the most excellent art we can. and to cede any kind of curatorial control of our work means losing control of that desired outcome.

But let’s call this out. For each and every one of us defines excellence differently. It is not, upon any form of examination, an objective, universal term.

Let’s be honest: all of us strive for excellence in our work. And all of us have seen each other’s work, so we know in our hearts that this is a subjective term. So let’s put the notion that holding onto excellence is a barrier to this work.

Our missions are the ultimate lens through which we can judge excellence: how excellently are we manifesting our mission? and conversely, is our mission the most excellent manifestation of the deep belief we hold as art makers in our communities? To what end are me making theater? I come to you with a lot of questions today, which is how we found our answers, which belong uniquely to us.

The primary question: Why?

Why would we as a field, and as individual theaters and artists, take this on–why deepen audience engagement towards a culture of participation? There are extrinsic indicators that participation is a key to almost any successful cultural experience–sports could not be a clearer and shinier example. Short of playing the game on the field, the vast majority of fans of any sporting event are far from receptive spectators. They are participants. Studies show explicitly the link between participation and attendance–those who make are those who go, and there are more makers out there, thanks to, among many factors, technology.

But we can also look at the more intrinsic understanding of the value of participation by looking at our own work in arts education, which is built on the premise of participatory learning as the building block to a vital creative mind. Although the discussions ahead may mostly steer clear from arts learning, we might want to ask ourselves: why do we stop engaging our stakeholders in participatory experiences once they reach the age of 18? Have we made detrimental distinctions between professional and amateur as we leave the arts learning arena and enter into the producing arena?

Finally – and in my opinion most importantly, in looking for answers to “why”, we must look into our own hearts and minds as art makers and leaders. For me, this process is driven primarily from the belief that theater making–art making–is a vital component to creating a livebale and democratic society. And if that belief is true, then the process of theater making must democratize to reflect and make manifest that belief.

This question can only be answered by you, and must be answered, I believe, if the work you embark upon is to flow throughout your organization. Without your passion, your deep seeded belief, no effort beyond business as usual will sustain. When the impulse to engage is as artistically passionate and as artistically charged as your work on stage, in classroom or in community settings, some beautiful changes occur.

In short, the “why” is the DNA.

In reading a paper like the Irvine-commissioned Getting In On the Act or any other paper or study that defines the new participatory landscape, one can easily feel coerced into adopting new practices just to remain viable to funders. But after asking “why” this would matter to you, you might find that you are creating an answer to the call that is out there, one that allows you to work in partnership with foundations, not in subservience to them. They are seeing the new landscapes–they need us to traverse them, and shape them as only artists and art makers can.

Back to the why.

Once we are inside the why?, we can look again at our mission and ask some bracing questions – like: “How does increasing participation fulfill or distract from our work?” Do we see our mission as providing “for” constituencies or as making “with” constituencies. In other words, are we seeing our patrons as partners in fulfilling our mission, or are the patrons the end result of your mission?

There is no wrong answer here.

Rather, to understand how to embark on any kind of process of deepening engagement, each of us needs to examine our particular desired outcomes–where are our missions leading us? We must be intentional.
If we achieve some semblance of intentionality based on understanding why more than we need this, we want this, then I believe all the other questions begin to unfold relatively organically, though not without some potentially painful insight into some of our organizational biases, that might unintentionally, or intentionally, hinder this process.

Who is your who?

In answering the second question for myself: “Whom are we hoping engage more deeply?” I found that Cal Shakes had–in unintentional and therefore deeply determined and ingrained ways–excluded certain voices on our stage. For us, increasing participation began at home. Before we talked about audience in any form, we talked about the work–specifically, who was making it. Shakespeare was the man till I got there. Then I let a lot of other white guys in the room–Shaw, Wilde, Chekhov, you know the drill. It wasn’t until I brought Zora Neale Hurston into the house–through her Spunk as imagined by George C. Wolfe and interpreted by Patricia McGregor–did I realize how malnourished Cal Shakes was in diverse voices. I began the process of increasing participation with who our artists were. And are. For it continues today and will for the remainder of my tenure and beyond, for the who, for us at Cal Shakes, are not just audiences of color, but audiences who desire to hear new voices–writers, directors, actors. Who is your who?

The What and the How

The further we take ourselves into the field of increased participation we start to look at the what–the work itself–for the closer we get to taking engagement past the portal of receptive to particpatory, the closer we see the two–the work and the engagement–connected, and in some cases, the same.

How will the work change? How much can it change? Again, the answer will be different for everyone, but let me return to Spunk to offer insight if not encouragement. Spunk is not a known title, and it was outside the realm of work we had been known to do. But it wasn’t outside our mission and only through unintentional (and therefore quite damaging) ways was the voice of someone like Zora Neale Hurston not included. But Spunk did succeed, on every level. And critical to its success was the interpretive artist at the helm, Patricia McGregor. Patricia comes to the room with the belief that community is central to the process of art making. The community of Cal Shakes–staff, board, patrons, learners and those new to our community–were invited into the process and experience of the work in a variety of ways that felt entirely organic to the work itself.

Spunk is one of the five best selling shows in Cal Shakes’ nearly 40 year history. And even if it wasn’t, the depth of experience among all participants enriched our organization in a beautiful and profound way and spurred us forward to bring engagement deep into the artistic conversation and process.

I know I sound like I am veering off course by discussing programming and artists, but the work we do is the product we make, and the product will determine the audience. Expand the product and you expand the audience.

The who and the what are absolutely enmeshed in a culture of participation–in any of its forms. By doing so, you break through the tradition of audience engagement efforts living in a separate column from the work you are doing, where the who and the what are driven by two separate–and often silo’d–departments within an organization. You can tweet all you want, but that ain’t participation. And unless the work on stage cries out for those 140 characters on some essential level, then hash tag #whatisthepoint?

The Where and the How

These are the fun questions, cause this is where experimentation comes into play. At Cal Shakes, we have several acres of exterior lobby that are open for two hours prior to show, which gives us a good starting point to answer where, and inside of that, the when. But that’s only for people who come to the theater. The standard audience definition. To go outside our proverbial doors, to engage in place making through art making, was to widen that standard definition and therefore, the measurements of success.

Beyond subscription numbers have come numbers of people who touch the work in some form, at one or more points in the process, and at more locations, outside our home. Examples include the Lab’s artist-investigator experiments where we re-grant money funded to us to artists interested in identifying where and how theater can be made in direct collaboration with communities new to us and perhaps to theater itself; and our pilot producton of Twelfth Night in communities, directed by Michelle Hensley of Minneapolis’ Ten Thousand Things where engagement is made with little or nothing between actor, words, and audience, in non-traditional settings, for free or little cost.

We are doing this with our upcoming production of Luis Alfaro’s Alleluia the Road, which will dismantle the traditional signifiers of production to present the play nakedly–language and actors only–inside a series on spaces where the participant audience experiences Alfaro’s work alongside the work of visual artists, and their theater and community partners throughout california–all of which investige the idea of california as dream state for immigrants, the Califas Project.

These are just examples, and they are predicated on key partnerships that are the reason our work in deepening engagement is possible–with Ten Thousand Things and Interesection for the Arts, we have partners who have reach and methodology that take our ambitions and place them on the ground, working in concert with community members to increase participation acrosss ethnic, economic and geographic boundaries.

Think of the unexecpected partners who share in your why–or at least share in the desire to ask why. Partners that even though smaller in scale have the capacity to extend your reach ten fold. We can’t do all this alone, nor should we want to.

Doing this only within the walls of our houses only changes the air slightly. And for increased participation to succeed, we must let the air change. We must breathe new air. We must be willing to alter our cultures if we are to genuinely, authentically deepen engagement beyond enrichment, and bring audiences into the culture of participation that defines theater that is more than vital to its communities. It is one with communities.

That’s my big hairy audacious goal, my ultimate outcome.

What’s yours?

Part of the Audience Engagement conversation at the TCG 2013 Conference

Part of the Audience Engagement conversation at the TCG 2013 Conference

  • June 10, 2013