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Audience Engagement

Lately, the debate around public funding for theaters has been getting a lot of attention. Where should the money go? Who/what really needs it? Should theatre receive public funding at all?

What I want to know is: why does theatre in particular seem to have such trouble making money these days in the first place? Is it because we have so many more entertainment sources (like movies, television, video games, etc.) that are cheaper and require less time and effort on our part? Is it because theatre is more of a “special occasion” kind of thing, a night out, rather than a necessity? Is it because a show can only be shown in one place at one time, whereas movies can be screened everywhere? Is it because it’s just too expensive? Boring? Old? Inaccessible?

I am just beginning to make a foray into this topic, which is truly too deep and complex to tackle all at once. I read a short blog post recently by Gwydion Suilebhan on the topic of public funding. His main point seems to be that, in order to get people to come to the theatre, we should focus first and foremost on a building a connection with the audience rather than catering to subscribers or taking arbitrary risks. In essence, make a serious commitment to storytelling, and don’t worry about the money.

Though this sounds beautiful in theory, I am not sure if it would really work. Putting on shows without the ending profit in mind as a way of earning money seems like idealistic, folksy advice to a single person: “You’ll find someone when you just stop looking!” However, I do think building a relationship with an audience is key. From what I have seen in my experience thus far, theaters who put an emphasis on audience engagement (talkbacks, available dramaturgical info, educational classes, parties/gifts of food) tend to build a loyal following. I don’t fully agree with Suileban’s thesis – I think there are many floundering theaters out there who do focus on good storytelling – but he makes a good point. Audiences will want to go where they feel welcomed and excited. Theaters who engage with their audiences as people, not buyers, are the ones people will want to return to and live with again and again – and I think this goes for regional theaters especially.

How this deals with the whole funding problem I am still negotiating. Theaters are always going to need to make money. However, one thing that theatre has over all the other entertainment mediums is direct, in-the-moment human connection. There is always an audience. We, unlike movie artists, have the opportunity of engaging with them live in their own communities. I think we should focus on harnessing that, on catering to the needs of our immediate community, so that the theatre becomes less of that-place-where-they-sometimes-do-Streetcar-and-Les-Mis, and more of an essential and productive element of the city/town it was built in.

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