The Next Phase of the Doris Duke-Funded Plan to Revolutionize Theater is Now Upon Us

Theater companies everywhere take note: The revolution is proceeding according to plan.

At least that's the opinion of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which just gave $1.4 million to support the second round of Theatre Communication Group's (TCG) Audience (R)Evolution program.

This ambitious program seeks to identify and share best-in-class audience engagement models to help re-energize communities, expand audiences, and create financially sustainable futures for theater companies across the country. In essence, the program acts as a kind of consultative body. After finding companies that get it right, they make these findings available to others.

The potential value provided by the group's work cannot be overestimated. Theater groups both large and small continue to struggle with boosting audience engagement, yet they lack the disposable income to, say, pay a consultant to tell them how to do it or to make a big bet on a program that runs a high risk of failure.

It's an incredibly well structured and expertly organized revolution comprised of four phases. Phase 1, research, found planners seeking out these best-in-class theaters and identifying five clusters of successful audience engagement and community development strategies.

Of course, just like Che Guevara's discovery that exporting Cuba's revolution to Bolivia was a bit tricky, program administrations understand that what works in Brooklyn may not work in, say, El Paso. As a result, the second element of the research finds TCG poring over the data to unearth "common traits of theatres which have had stable or growing attendance over the past five to 10 years." This should allow theaters to make more accurate apples-to-apples comparisons.

An $800,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation supported this preliminary activity, which also saw TCG issuing smaller grants to these best-in-class theaters. And if Duke's more recent, larger grant is any indication, they seem to pleased with progress thus far.

So what's next for the Audience (R)Evolution program? 2015 heralds the arrival of Phase II, convening, in which Audience (R)Evolution will assemble 200 theater, arts and cultural professionals in Kansas City, from March 25 to 27, to "engage with research, dynamic speakers and knowledge sharing around successful audience engagement and community development strategies."

The summer of 2015 will bring Phase III, cohort grants, during which TCG will award more grants to help theaters put these strategies into practice. Phase IV, dissemination, will make the group's findings available to theaters everywhere.

We're happy to say this program moves forward with the wind at its back. According to recent statistics, close to 46 million people in the US viewed live theater within a period of 12 months, up from 42.85 million in the Autumn of 2012 (although below a pre-recession high of 47.31 million in the Spring of 2008).

This next phase of funding also underscores a historical reality: Behind any revolution, there's always someone cutting the checks. Click here for more insights around the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's work in the field of theater.