It’s no secret that when times of economic struggle hit, discretionary spending dwindles. Yet, history has shown that during these times theater often flourishes. How might this be possible in today’s economic climate?
The Long Wharf Theatre, which recently announced a major, multi-million-dollar renovation project that will increase the space inside the theater’s facilities and give the theater’s façade a facelift, aims to make its audiences’ experiences even more enjoyable.
And while Long Wharf, which has the ability to raise a significant amount of funds for a major renovation project (the organization’s staff, trustees, The Tau Foundation, and other partners who are making this possible deserve a round of applause), many smaller organizations and individual artists do not have the time, resources, or space to cater to the community in such a way. Still, individuals and smaller organizations can offer audiences programming in ways that are efficient on the presenters’ end and impactful to audiences. I submit to you, as a founding member of a local theater company (the New Haven Theater Company, whose website is http://www.newhaventheatercompany.com), a few ways in which I believe the theater community can improve what we do not simply to survive, but to thrive in the New Haven community.
1. Connect with audiences beyond the few friends and early supporters of our work.
We often rely on e-mails, e-blasts, and the swapping of e-mail lists to increase awareness of our work.
But this isn’t good enough. We need to enter into a dialogue with current and prospective audience members, both online and in person. Yes, we want to talk about the great work we’re doing and why our work is “unique,” but more important than that is asking audiences, “What do you want to see?” “What stories are important to and resonate with you?” “How can we make theater important in your life?” or any other question that gets to the heart of what stories resonate with the New Haven community and, ultimately, what performances local audiences would pay to see. Try: chatting up someone next to you at Blue State Coffee; running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for your next production and test the community support for your work, and responding to all e-mails, Facebook messages, Tweets, etc. And always make the messaging personal. While this takes time, of which each of us has a finite amount, if we establish a dialogue with old and new audiences now, providing them with ways to directly impact our work and thus getting them invested in our work and spreading the word, our seats will fill up.
2. Make theater affordable. Yes, we have to cover production costs, pay our talent and ourselves, invest money to support future productions, and preserve the value of our work, but these are leans times. And even if they were not, some of the most successful theater I’ve seen and been a part of did not have lavish sets, intricate lighting designs, or period specific costuming. What those productions emphasized was strong acting and directing, and, above all, the ability to tell a story that resonated with the audience.
Perhaps many companies and artists are currently doing all of this and more. And that’s great. As a community, however, we can do better. We can better allocate our time and resources, better engage old and new audiences, and better create a more robust and inclusive theater community in New Haven. It’s time for us all to do a bit of renovation … with or without millions of dollars.
Christian Shaboo was the Arts Council’s Communications Manager. This is his opinion.