Teach a Man to Fish (and Expand Audiences): A Funder Sends Theater Professionals On the Road

With support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF), the Theatre Communications Group's (TCG) Audience (R)Evolution program seeks to identify and share successful audience engagement models to re-energize communities, expand audiences, and create financially sustainable futures for theater companies across the country.

The program takes an expansive view of the word "sharing." If you're a theater programming director looking to learn from these best practices, what's more valuable—reading a 20-page white paper on your iPad, or sitting inches from a best-in-class practitioner?

Clearly, the latter is the more compelling option. 

This learn-by-example sentiment lies at the heart of the most recent round of TCG's Audience (R)Evolution travel grants, made earlier this spring. Funded once again by Duke, the program awarded up to $7,500 to sixteen teams of TCG Member Theatre staff and community stakeholders to "observe effective audience-engagement programs and strategies to deepen relationships with communities they serve."

Arts professional appreciate the value of engaging in the "peer-driven exchange of innovative audience engagement models." It's not an issue of value. It's an issue of money. (Isn't it always?) Theater directors will have a hard time making the case for multiple trips crisscrossing the continent, even if it effectively builds "community and dialogue." 

Lucky for Bill Berry, his trip will be on the TCG's dime. Berry is the artistic director of one of this round's recipient organizations, Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre. He and director of education and outreach Orlando Morales will visit with leadership, actors and staff from Deaf West Theatre (Hollywood), La Jolla Playhouse (Southern California), New York Deaf Theatre (Brooklyn), National Theatre of the Deaf (West Hartford, Connecticut) and Roundabout Theatre (New York City).

That's a lot of frequent flier miles.

The duo will "gather lessons learned when featuring deaf actors in performances and creating educational programming for deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing audiences" in preparation for the troupe's planned production of Hunchback of Notre Dame, which will feature a deaf actor in the lead role.

Audience (R)Evolution's integrated approach—engagement plus dissemination—is certainly attuned to the zeitgeist of the times. The Wallace Foundation has committed tens of millions of dollars to help arts organizations boost engagement, and funders like ArtPlace America have shared best practices around key strategic priorities like creative placemaking.

What better way for organizations to get the most value out of a best practice than to learn directly from the rock star theater troupe itself?

"There is no better way to garner such high-quality knowledge than through these on-site, real-life conversations," said Maurine Knighton, DDCF's program director for the arts. "The tools and ideas that the participating theatres exchange will ultimately support the field at large by enriching the theatre-going experiences of audiences nationwide."