What Can Fargo's Theatre B Teach Us About Exportable "Small City" Audience Engagement?

A few hours ago, I wrote a piece looking at the Wallace Foundation's $52 million effort to boost audience engagement. In it, I alluded to the central challenge that the initiative hopes to address—to ensure that successful audience-building techniques can be exported to different geographies.

The foundation began cutting checks and at least three recipients call the San Francisco Bay Area home. Now, the cynic in me would argue that those case examples represent significant outliers. "Sure," the cynical me would say, "It's easy to build audiences in downtown San Francisco and appeal to the fast-growing millennial demographic—the entire Bay Area is awash in cash, jobs, people, and culture."

And the not-cynical part of me would have to agree with this assessment.

Fortunately, there is no cynic in me, anywhere. Nonetheless, today's news out of Fargo, North Dakota presents an illuminating "small city" counterpoint to the concept of exportable audience engagement.

Theatre B, tucked away in the corner of downtown Fargo, delivers big city theater to a town with 113,658 residents—and it's on a roll. It was recently selected to participate in the Community Creative Cohort program funded by the Bush Foundation, a $100,000 grant that was awarded to only 16 finalists located in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota.

According to the Bush Foundation's website, the Community Creative Cohort's intention looks eerily similar to the Wallace Foundation's "Building Audiences for Sustainability" program. The cohort's goal is "to both recognize and learn from exemplary organizations that meaningfully engage people in the arts and integrate the arts into public life." And according to the foundation, the many programs and ideas Theatre B brings to the table "makes testing out new ways for the arts to affect a community possible."

So what, exactly, are some of these ideas?

First, its organization structure adheres to a kind of "we're all in this together" philosophy. Theatre B's company is made up of 11 resident ensemble members who do everything from acting to technical production to ushering.

Second, and most importantly, the theatre rolls out innovative programs. For starters, there's "Theatre B Emerging Artist Training (B.E.A.T.)," which is an "incubator series" for new work. In addition—and taking a page from the recently profiled Blue Star Theatres Grant Program—there's the theatre's partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs to bring "ReEntry," a play based on interviews with Marines and their families and the struggles about life after deployment, to places like the Fargo, VA Medical Center and the Fargo American Legion Hall.

Ultimately, whether you're a nonprofit in Seattle or Burlington, Vermont, one takeaway is abundantly clear. Foundations like Wallace and Bush are increasingly committed to a "best practices" approach that surfaces and promotes new and exciting ideas. It's a welcome development that's not lost on folks like Carrie Wintersteen, Theatre B's executive director. When alluding to Bush's program, she noted, "Kudos to the foundation for even having this mindset of 'let's learn from the arts organizations themselves.'"

Kudos indeed!