Bob Dylan, ever the master of reinvention, once said, "He not busy being born is busy dying." And the same can be said for nonprofit theater organizations. Constant reinvention is needed in an ever-competitive arts landscape. Fortunately, they're getting a huge boost from the Doris Duke Foundation, who allocated $800,000 for the Audience (R)Evolution grant program, designed and administered by the Theatre Communications Group (TCG). The goal? Nothing less than revolutionizing modern theater.
When organizations like TCG talk about a concept as audacious as "revolutionizing" any element of the art world, they must first identify an overarching theme that will help them reach their goal. In the case of TCG, the answer is to identify "best-in-class" audience engagement models and then share these models to help re-energize communities, expand audiences, and create financially sustainable futures for companies across the country. But before we look at some of the winners, let's see how far the project has come since its inception two years ago.
Audience (R)Evolution kicked off in 2012 with its "Assessment" phase, where the group identified highly effective audience engagement models, and more importantly, the common elements that made them so successful. Then, in early 2013, they brought together theater, arts, and cultural professionals for a conference in Philadelphia to discuss their preliminary findings.
This brings us to the present phase, "Grants," whereby the group awarded funding to 10 recipients whose models are, for all intents and purposes, some of the best in the country. One of those recipients is the Denver-based group Su Teatro. What was it about Su Teatro's model that compelled the group to award them a $37,500 grant? In short, "collaborating with social services organizations" and "gamifying the patron experience," according to Teresa Eyring, Executive Director of TCG. Furthermore, the theater aggressively reaches out to immigrant communities, specifically Mexican families, and uses the art of theater as an educational tool to help immigrant children learn English. The lesson here is to integrate local community members and make the theater less of an entertainment option and more of an educational resource and social activity space.
Another of the recipients is the Cape Fear Regional Theatre, who were awarded a little over $70,000 and whose audience engagement model centers around the issue of ongoing military deployments, one of the most pressing issues facing their community. Their upcoming theater piece, "Voices from the Homefront," will examine experiences of spouses and children at home during deployments. The takeaway here? Give your audience a voice and don't shy away from the important issues affecting your community.
Ultimately, TCG funded these organizations because it believes that the key ingredients of the winning audience engagement models—embracing immigrant communities, "gamifying" the experience, partnering with social services groups, giving a voice to the audience—can be applied to theater groups all over the country. And that's precisely what they plan to do. The final "Dissemination" phase of the project kicks off next year, where theaters around the country will be given access to the project's findings and encouraged to emulate freely.