When I said I wanted to write about audience development, a co-worker replied, “What do you mean when you say that?” As an emerging dramaturg, I’ve come to understand it as providing additional resources and opportunities for theater audiences, from play guides to post-show discussions to behind the scenes workshops and/or panel discussions with experts about the content of a show.
I’m deeply invested in using audience development as a way to facilitate social change, through opening up theater to broader audiences and supporting shows that ask thought-provoking questions. The Wallace Foundation describes in terms of expanding the audience base in terms of age and ethnicity. By allowing new audiences to see shows, fears about the death of theater can be negated and it supports the principle values the Wallace Foundation puts in place: namely, that art is crucial “as individuals…to experience beauty and insight, to help us make sense of our lives, and to envision not what is but what could be. As communities…to forge social bonds, strengthen our economies, and deepen our understanding of each other.” Audiences come to shows with their own perspectives, wanting to be entertained but also to see how the characters onstage can relate to their own experiences, and to also learn something about themselves and the world around them. This is easy when audiences see something they can relate to or enjoy. But how do we get audiences to connect to shows that portray experiences different from their own or are difficult to enjoy?
Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! lies outside the experiences of the usual American audience. The history of apartheid South Africa is dense and complex on its own and may be hard for audiences to get a grasp on even through Fugard’s powerful play. As a dramaturg for the production at Park Square, I provided photographs and quotes related to the themes of the show to inspire the cast and turned this a lobby display. Audiences could look at these collages before and after the show and draw connections between what they were seeing onstage and what these outside sources stated on the issues. On opening night, many audience members stopped by to look at them. I chatted with one couple in particular who shared with me their experiences of visiting Africa. By the end of the show run, the marketing staff told me that the display had been popular throughout the performances and stirred conversation.
The Amish Project in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio is a show that deals with an issue well-known to audiences but is not easy to deal with. Part of the Singular Voices/Plural Perspective Series, the post-show discussions after each performance allowed audiences to respond and work through what they had seen with the creator, Jessica Dickey. During one such discussion, an audience member told Dickey how it evoked the Civil Rights Movement for him. Moved by this compliment, Dickey thanked him and told him how much it touched her that he saw that correlation.
These sorts of interactions not only allow audiences to talk about the show to creators themselves but also can influence how artists see their own work. By creating dialogue and two-way communication, collaboration between artists and audience members can help “forge social bonds…and deepen our understanding of communities” that are a powerful part of what art can do.
The trouble with audience development is that it often gets lumped into the market and financial part of theater, where it starts to sound an awful lot like people trying to sell something. I work in a box office, and I know all too well how ticket sales make or break a fiscal year, but audience development in my experience has always extended beyond something that is quantitative and into something more qualitative. When audience development isn’t given a clear definition, the goals can easily become focused on entirely different goals and begin to care more about filling seats rather than working more constructively. It begins to revolve around the idea that there is only one kind of theater that counts and works to include audience development focused on social change – especially in terms of reaching out to diversity – only twice a year.
There is also a lack of clarity at to who should be creating these opportunities. Does it fall to audience services departments, if such a department exists in theaters? Should people on the creative team take initiative if others haven’t? In a perfect world, a balance would be found between productions and the theaters they are presented in to create a position that focus on these tasks. But as of now it falls to independent self-starters who create these opportunities for themselves.
I recently saw Theatre Latte Da’s Lullaby at the Ritz Theater and was moved beyond words. Never before had a show personally affected me quite the way this one did. Flabbergasted, I continued to think about it for the next few weeks until, bottled up with my response, I emailed the theater to tell them how grateful I was for producing the show. Perhaps through remembering what it feels like to be an audience member ourselves, we can better define audience development, work towards better serving both patrons and productions, and building stronger relationships with our community.