Audience and Community Development
How do artists and arts organizations contextualize the stories we tell for our audiences? How do we provide opportunities for dialogue around our work? In what way can our work serve as a clearing house for issues that matter to our community, a venue for communal processing of events, a place where new ideas are considered? How do we challenge our audiences to go further, to ask questions, to carry the ideas and feelings they experience in the theater into their lives, to take action? How can our work transform artists, audiences, and communities? These are the questions that most occupy my mind as an artistic leader.
How do we open up the lines of communication? Structured talkbacks or post-show conversations are a popular, and effective, way of initiating a formal conversation between artists and audience. A carefully planned post-show conversation can offer wonderful opportunities for dialogue. Liz Lerman Dance Exchange's Critical Response Process is a widely-recognized model for facilitating deep feedback from an audience. Playwright Laurie Brooks offers a Boal-based talkback structure for young audiences which I have used with great success. At Black Rep, we spent a lot of time refining our post-show format, eventually using a series of essential questions to guide weekly conversations. Two of these conversations are transcribed here, following performances of Tracy Letts' Bug on October 5 and October 19, 2008.
What do we put in people's hands before, during, or after the performance? Is it possible to use the idea of the playbill to ignite the ideas of the play, or generate momentum towards a specific goal of your production or organization? Black Rep transformed the old-school program into a 'zine called Black Notes which included artwork, poetry, and interviews which explored the season's themes, alongside information on each production. The dynamic House Theatre in Chicago has developed an exciting solution: since their goal is to get audience members talking to each other and feeling like family before the play begins, in lieu of a traditional playbill they distribute a stack of trading cards - one to each audience member. Each trading card has the face of an actor, designer, or crew member. If you want to find out who's on the other cards, you have to trade with those sitting around you!
How does the physical location encourage or inhibit dialogue? A welcoming space where audience members want to hang out before or after a production, perhaps mingling with artists and staff, creates an informal, exciting synergy. Space can also contain other cues for audiences, ways of provoking conversation or questions. What music is playing? What is hanging on the walls (or on the ceiling or in the windows or...)? What kind of food or drink is available and how is it presented? How can we use these canvasses to support and further the work on the stage, and deepen the experience of audiences and artists? Black Rep's space uses a combination of art and objects from around the African Diaspora to help audiences visualize its mission of presenting plays and music with African roots from all corners of the globe. The Chicago Tribune recently wrote about how the Guthrie Theater has opened its doors to audiences in some interesting ways. And in a converted warehouse space in Brooklyn, Elizabeth Streb has created S.L.A.M., "an open-access venue that models a new kind of artist-driven community institution" - a place she has compellingly described as more akin to a "7 Eleven" than to a traditional arts venue .
The Open Door
How do we find out what really matters to people and why? How do we decide what really matters to us - as artists and arts organizations - and why, and how to move towards it? How do we always leave the door open for more? How do we make sure we are listening? One small step is to make sure that anyone who encounters your work has an easy way of contacting you. Some of the most important responses to and conversations I've had about my work have been surprising and unsolicited. I'm always trying to figure out how to open the door for more of this kind of conversation.