A New Day: Post Recession Insights on Audiences and the Theatre Experience

There is a theory that for the last two centuries, the 14th year signaled the start of the century as it truly would be: The 1814 Congress of Vienna opened Europe to a century of remarkable progress and peace; World War I presaged the 20th century as one of war and turmoil. While we won't know for decades what kind of century 2014 bodes, as we emerge from our post-recession, post war foxholes and look around, the environment for public sector organizations is very different now than it has been for the past two or three generations.

I have started to explore what that means to the community in which I live and work: resident theatre. And what better place to start than at our oldest resident theatre, Cleveland Play House (CPH), where one of the youngest artistic directors in our network, Laura Kepley, 42, is finishing her first year.

Prior to assuming this position last year, Kepley had been on the artistic team at CPH. She trained in theatre at the Trinity Rep/Brown MFA program and led that program in the three years prior to coming to CPH in 2010. She has directed at Asolo Repertory Theatre, The Kennedy Center and Contemporary American Theatre Festival, among others. See more about her and CPH at their website here

The first thing on her mind is the audience. Just like today's retail customers, theatre audiences arrive armed with advance research. And they want to maximize every aspect of a precious night out. "They can do about anything they want at home," Keply observes. "Now, we see a sense of commitment and fun; whereas, audiences used to come to theatre out of a sense of obligation -- the arts are good for you. "

This decade is marked by wider income inequality: larger scale, more collaborative approaches to community development, and the internet age dichotomies of connectedness/alienation, live/virtual, and home/community. Talk to Kepley and you hear words on the lips of all theatre leaders in 2014: institutional collaboration, audience engagement and participation and an eye on a wider community role.

Since its move into Play House Square in downtown Cleveland from a neighborhood on the East Side, CPH has redefined its role in its community. "For the past three years, we've listened to audiences and we know they want deep experiences, a personal connection to the evening--the place, the staff, the show. So talkbacks and supplemental experiences, which used to be exceptional, are now normal." Kepley explained.

To get audiences out of their homes and into theatres, Kepley and her colleagues put on some form of pre-show experience every night. On any given evening, 15-20 percent of the audience arrives early for these offerings. "And it's not just the artistic panel; it has to be participatory," she says. For CLYBOURNE PARK, the audience was asked to sketch costumes for characters in the second act which is set in contemporary Chicago, based upon the actual costume designs for the first act, set in 1959. "We're offering more to audiences; but we're also asking a lot more from artists," Kepley says.

Kepley and her colleagues have accepted a truism resonating across the field: it is not enough anymore for an organization to simply put on its art. Theaters need more resources from the community than ever before, and we are expected to play a bigger role in a broad range of issues, from education to economic development. And our audiences are aging.

"We are striving for multi-generational experiences," Kepley went on, "rather than, say, a special event for younger audiences. We tried those for a year, but we found them very superficial. Great plays resonate across generations, so our engagement events aim to include all ages."

Kepley is optimistic about Cleveland and CPH. "Our move downtown has changed the perception of CPH," she says. "It was bold, forward-looking, collaborative, and showed we are open to playing a role in the whole Northeast Ohio region."

Broader community collaboration especially paid off for the theatre's A CHRISTMAS STORY this past season. Over 20,000 new audience members attended the show. Kepley attributes this to a series of special collaborations: with musical version of a show playing across town, with the show sponsors, University Hospital, and with the actual A CHRISTMAS STORY house, now a tourist destination in Cleveland.

Considerable energy is going into these enhanced experiences and wider collaborations. Indeed, one bright spot in our communal culture is the ways creative participation is growing all across the arts. Artists, staff and audiences are now dancing together in ways undreamed of ten or more years ago. Leaders like Kepley embrace this dance, which is likely to continue for this, well, century, at least.