New audiences: 'Integration warriors' fuel attendance. (Arts Marketing).
New York City's Joseph Papp Public Theater earns $100,000 a year from group sales because it reaches out to cultural groups in the city. Reaching this level of income has taken four years, but even the first year was profitable, bringing in a extra $30,000.
"Shakespeare happens to be a successful tool to widen the audience," said Donna Walker-Kuhne, community affairs director of the theater. "We strive to have different ethnic groups represented on the stage."
Walker-Kuhne admitted that people who don't know about Shakespeare fail to see the universality and that a perception exists that it's a White society or English theme. "We spend time with the community to educate about the language and that helps to demystify the plays," she said.
Walker-Kuhne initially began a struggle against the barriers eight years ago with a team she called her "Integration Warriors." The team of development and outreach people of various races and ethnicities sought theatergoers in churches, cultural and educational places. They actively met with community leaders to find out why people were not coming.
Responses ranged from people not being aware of what the theater was doing to others who were not interested. Many needed encouragement to go into the theater.
The Public Theater listened. A program called Shakespeare in the Boroughs brought actors of color to sites in the five boroughs. These actors taught students the language of the Bard in workshops. People recited lines and discovered the verses had the same rhythms as hip hop or many other kinds of literature.
"Within 10 to 15 minutes they are over the barriers," she said. "The primary obstacle is making the plays more accessible for people by extending invitations so people feel welcome."
The integration warriors wanted to connect with the community eight years ago and it was a new innovation then. Today the Public Theater actively pursues the term.
"When I toured with Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk, I went around the country to 25 cites and built an audience development task force in each city," she said. "These community leaders volunteered their time to help, promote and sell tickets because I look like them and I was empowering them to be totally responsible for the success of a show about our culture."
Organizations need to have budget allocations for a full-time person devoted to this effort. A marketing line should be available for advertising in a substantial campaign based on whatever the production requires, according to Walker-Kuhne.
"We need audiences of color to feel invited to arts and culture," she said. "The majority of our cultural institutions are not doing that or reaching out with people who look like the community."
Walker-Kuhne believes in a four-step process:
* Theaters need to research the community;
* Get others to join the process;
* Use inviting language; and
* Develop partnerships.
The Public Theater uses collaborations with other organizations to target their constituencies. Work with the Asian American Arts Alliance and the Association of Hispanic Artists brings those audiences to the Public Theater. Some examples include these groups bringing events like a diverse artists' tribute to September 11 or a visual arts gallery.
"We collaborate with them on their programs where they hold events in our building," she said. "They make an announcement at the beginning of each program to inform their audience about our plays and how they can get discount coupons."
This collaboration helps the Public Theater capture new names for its mailing list and coordinators bring back many through group sales.
The Asian American Arts Alliance represents 70 groups and benefits by gaining the credibility from the Public's reputation. Groups like this can hold a fundraiser by using the space.
"The group selects a production to get its membership out and pays us for the ticket while the extra goes to the alliance," she said. "This is a way to make sure that constituency comes into our building and we can reach out to them when we do Asian-American productions."
Public enjoys increased support that allows it to function with half the amount of shows a year as produced eight years ago, five shows now compared with 10. The theater's seating ranges from 99 to 300 depending on the space for the event and is now the home to 20 other group events per year.
Herb Donaldson, associate coordinator, runs the monthly open house program that gets people into the theater to a panel discussion of community issues. "At one time we had all women eager to talk on a health topic," he said. "At another, we focused on Othello to explore how other cultures deal with war or jealousy."
Another way to conduct outreach happens when the Public conducts a ticket distribution for Shakespeare in the Park at local community sites, such as the Flushing Town Hall in Queens. "We send information out to tell people we will hand out free tickets in that area on a given night," he said. "We see many people returning from years ago so we know people are staying with us."
New York's Second Stage Theater also has grown by reaching minorities. Now in its fourth season in midtown Manhattan, the theater's seating has almost tripled from 108 to 296 seats. The company has a subscriber base blossoming to more than 10,000, up from 3,000.
Second Stage uses a project called In the Door. Before each production it brings in a multi-generational group to experience the play in a different way. A group of 18 to 25 people. Work with a teaching artist on a theme of the play. For Tiny Alice, a poetic play that asks questions about faith and religion, a main focus is an elaborate mansion.
"That group created their own dream house about their aspirations and the worlds in which they lived," said Christopher Burney, associate artistic director. "They didn't read the play before, but were guided through a dream
world as we showed them the sets. They spoke about the metaphysical values and showed that they were brilliant newcomers to the theater."
Such community people are selected from door-to-door discoveries. Personnel from the theater go to community centers, mom and pop businesses and shelters.
"We simply asked if they would like to come," he said. "Even though some looked at us cross-eyed, the point is that the majority are minorities."
The theater was originally founded as a literary theater based in the Upper West Side. The move close to Broadway made the company aware that it didn't want to be seen as another Ivy Tower or theater with insurmountable ticket prices, according to Burney.
"Our connection with the minority community is important," he said. "We used marketing for August Wilson's Jitney, by having a grassroots effort that drew from local churches, fairs and community groups. The crucial point, however, is that many people have stayed with the company through the totally different play Tiny Alice.
Described by Burney as, "a contemporary, dark, sexy appeal," Second Stage's current play deals with ancient Roman myths and has a strong attraction for younger audiences.
"We have free matinees for public school students between eighth-grade through high school," he said. "Many have never seen a play. The barrier of growing up with action films and then appreciating a play is not as big as the barrier of getting them to come to the theater."
Burney explained that theaters have to find creative initiatives whether they seek to broaden the minority or age base. These concepts apply beyond the stage. Second Stage participates in school discount programs where students can buy tickets in advance for $5. Also, it has ongoing internships for people just curious about the theater. "We can show them the types of work done on sets or with make-up," he said. "Sometimes people don't realize that hundreds of other jobs exist in theater."
Tom Pope is a New York City-based journalist who writes about management issues.