Best in Class: Meet Eight Theater Companies Who Get Audience Engagement Right

Over the last two years, major U.S. foundations have become very serious about boosting audience engagement in the arts.

One major player is the Wallace Foundation, which is laying out $40 million over six years to find the best strategies for audience engagement. Wallace's money will help 24 selected nonprofit organizations — multidisciplinary presenters or those in arts forms such as opera, theater, music, and dance — design projects to build audiences through a variety of means, including new programs and nontraditional venues. 

In a way, Wallace's efforts are merely a big-picture replica of what the Theatre Communications Group's (TCG) Audience (R)Evolution program is doing. Funded by another major player committed to boosting audience engagement, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the program seeks to identify and share best-practices audience engagement models to re-energize communities, expand audiences, and create financially sustainable futures for theater companies across the country.

As we noted when we first wrote about this program, Audience (R)Evolution acts as a kind of consultative body. After finding companies that get it right, they make these findings available to others. In this sense, their approach is very much like what the Wallace Foundation is doing.

Now, we know what you're thinking. It would sure be valuable to see the nuts and bolts of these best-in-class theater organizations. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the nature of both programs suggest that Duke and Wallace want theaters to enthusiastically adopt components of these successful audience engagement models.

Fortunately — and slightly buried in the press release announcing the next round of Audience (R)Evolution Cohort Grants — we found this juicy tidbit: 

TCG also announced the second round of Audience (R)Evolution case studies to take place over the next three years. In 2013, TCG utilized AMS Planning & Research findings to provide information for the Audience (R)Evolution program. Based on this work, the Audience (R)Evolution program launched a Research and Resources Hub with eight case studies on effective audience-engagement and community-development strategies.

These case studies were models from Arkansas Repertory Theatre, HERE Arts Center, Long Wharf Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Youth Speaks, the Theater Offensive, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Read the case studies and learn how:

  • The Arkansas Repertory Theatre boosted engagement by providing audiences with direct access to actors, creative team members, and directors in order to involve them more closely in the creative process.
  • Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, CT used affordability, artist access, and community partnerships to build audiences.
  • The Theater Offensive in Boston used one-on-one connections, both on and offline to strengthen their community.

We encourage you to read them all here because they are — as they say in the theater world — gold.