Connect: Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis: Wallace Foundation

“Our grantees’ work isn’t just about selling tickets; it’s about engaging people in such a profound way that they’ll want to come back,” said Wallace Foundation senior communications officer Mary Trudel, citing research commissioned by Wallace and the John S. and James L L . Knight Foundation on building participation in the arts.

A lot goes into a decision to attend a cultural event, the researchers found, more than just knowing that it’s happening. There are perceptual questions (“Is this art form important to me and my community?” “Is this experience a worthy use of my family’s limited leisure time?”), practical questions (“Do I have the money to buy a ticket and transportation to get there?”), and experiential questions (“Am I going to feel welcome?” “Will it be fun?”). The answers to these and other questions guide how a person feels about the arts and whether they’re likely to participate further.

To illustrate the implications for grantees and grantmakers, Trudel told the story of one organization, the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis. “It’s a wonderful theatre, but they were having trouble filling the house,” she recalled. At first, they figured the problem was practical, that they weren’t offering enough ticket options, such as mini-subscriptions, or mixes of offerings at various times and days. They expanded their ticket package options, but they still had low ticket sales. Then, with help from the foundation, they decided to do some research and ask families why they weren’t coming to the theater more often, or at all.

“Families said they didn’t have time,” Trudel recalled, but the explanation didn’t seem sufficient. Families do have time, after all, to stay at home and watch television, or go out for dinner. The theatre probed further. What they found, the grantmaker explained, was that “families make time for things they see as valuable. So the theatre had to develop programs that were important to the families they were trying to reach, that would prompt parents to say, ‘I want my child to have that experience, and I will make time for it.’”
As a result of the research, Children’s Theatre Company artistic director Peter Brosius explained, the theater shifted its marketing focus “from the value of the production itself — the fact that it’s a world premiere, the credentials of the cast and creative team, etcetera — to the value of the production for the child watching it. Our marketing copy became the imagined voice of a child describing the emotional experience of the show, or what it made the child think about.”

The work itself changed, too. The theatre has continued to explore how to “transform our audience from observer to participant.” They have re-envisioned the lobby “not as a loading area but something akin to a village square,” where activities like poetry slams, dance performances, kite-making, and African markets engage audiences before and after the show. Inside the theatre, recent productions of Antigone and Romeo and Juliet broke the fourth wall; with chairs cleared away, audience members became villagers and were asked to dance with Romeo, hold the nurse’s hat and coat, or clear out of the way as an epic fight broke out. Brosius believes the changes are having a measurable effect: “As theatres across the country have seen their subscription numbers dwindle, we have stayed relatively steady.” Regular surveys, focus groups, and hand-held PDAs continue to capture audience responses.

But there’s a catch, as the Children’s Theater Company story illustrates: when an organization does research on what its target audiences want to see, marketing questions can bleed into programming decisions — and that makes some arts programmers awfully nervous. Their concern is that arts marketers care more about presenting what’s popular enough to sell tickets than about presenting meaningful art. The foundation recognizes the tension but encourages arts grantees to rethink the “old habit where programming decides what’s going on stage or on the walls, and gives it to marketing and says, ‘go and sell it.’ We’ve found that you need to have audiences in the room — if only by proxy — as you’re thinking about what the ‘it’ is.”

The foundation also supports activities to prepare audience members to appreciate art: “The more prepared an audience is, the more satisfied they’ll be with the experience,” Trudel explained. “We help arts organizations figure out how to engage more deeply with audiences, making them feel like ‘insiders,’ because once they do, they’ve got them for life.”

Research funded by the Wallace Foundation is at wallacefoundation.org under “Arts Participation.”

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