I have been thinking about the recent NEA audience figures and declining attendance. I think it is time for us to take a step back and examine ways in which theater institutions can change or create new programs that could address these declines.
Most theater institutions see that their primary job is to be a show producing factory. They create a strong season, aggressively market it, hold one or two fundraisers a year and occasionally do a performance for a school as part of an outreach program. And, all of these activities are GREAT, but they don’t actually allow for the audience to participate in activities other than simply attending. Most of these activities involve a tremendous amount of staff to create, build, manage, and run and more importantly, they’re exclusively the domain of professionals. And that’s FINE. But what if it was possible to allow the audience/community to use the stage for their own purpose, or to find ways to share the stage with professionals?
Taking a page from the science-museum world and their long history of citizen-science projects, I think it’s time that theaters start investing in citizen-artist projects. We need to remember that non-profits theaters are public institutions and have a responsibility to the public good. I’d propose that one of the best ways that we can do that is by creating programs that allow the public to engage with theater, not only by attending a performance but by participating in it.
I’m going to quote extensively from Nina Simon’s excellent book “The Participatory Museum” because she defines four categories of participation so eloquently. Also, I would encourage you to read it/buy it/support her. In the book she lays out four major categories of public participation: contribution, collaboration, co-creation, and hosted.
In contributory projects, visitors are solicited to provide limited and specified objects, actions, or ideas to an institutionally controlled process.
In collaborative projects, visitors are invited to serve as active partners in the creation of institutional projects that are originated and ultimately controlled by the institution.
In co-creative projects, community members work together with institutional staff members from the beginning to define the project’s goals and to generate the program or exhibit based on community interests.
Hosted projects are ones in which the institution turns over a portion of its facilities and/or resources to present programs developed and implemented by public groups or casual visitors. Hosted projects allow participants to use institutions to satisfy their own needs with minimal institutional involvement.
Simon is very clear that the various types of programs depend on the institution and the institutional goals. Using these guidelines, here are some possible ways that theaters could increase participation:
Contributory: Allowing the audience into a preproduction meeting to talk about about the choices that the director/designer are making BEFORE they happen. I often think that we should up-end the model of: see the show/then have an audience talk-back. What if the audience could have a conversation about the themes/design/creative choices BEFORE seeing the play? They would watch the with a more critically engaged eye, rather than just comment about it after the show.
Collaborative: Can members of your audience be allowed onstage? Theater companies in Chicago used to auction off walk-on roles. The non-professionals joined the cast of professional actors and participated in the rehearsal process. What if there was always a process for a non-professional actor to participate in each show? Or what if there were always certain shows that were cast exclusively from the community, using non-professionals? It’s been done to great effect with The Tempest at the Public. And Cornerstone Theater is exclusively focused on community based collaboration. What if every major theater attempted to include non-professional as part of their shows? I am certain that attendance would increase.
Co-creative: What if one slot of the theater’s season was dedicated to an issue that was explored with a group of community members? Or taking a page from Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s concept of a Creative Ecosystem, can we create a community of people or Brain Trust that uses a production to address a community issue, and that production of the play is just one step towards examining an issue that is pressing on a community? Rather than the artistic director or curator deciding that the institution should address the issue, what if there was a space in the theater’s season for the community to make work that addresses an issue, and it was realized in a variety of different forms?
Hosted: On dark nights or afternoons, or even early mornings, can the stage be used by community groups for everything from amateur theatrical shows to community meetings to playgroups? Can you offer your space to members of the community? Can you give rehearsal rooms to young people who need rehearsal space? Could you loan out costumes, or donate set-pieces?
I’ve spent a total of ten minutes thinking about these programs. Perhaps more will come to me, or you have some better ideas?
Nota Bene: I am not trying to devalue the work that professional theater artists are making. I think that many audiences appreciate seeing a well-crafted professional designed, directed and acted production. I am merely arguing that we should and could increase attendance by allowing for additional opportunities to participate in the work of their local theater.