• Patrick McAndrew

Serving Your Audience: Corporations & Theater in a Digital World

A few months ago, a friend of mine posted a very intriguing article on Facebook titled, The Empty Spaces Or, How Theater Failed America. It’s an amazing read that I highly recommend checking out.  In it, the writer, Mike Daisy, discusses how the American theater has developed into a non-profit corporation and that, because of this, creative artists are earning wages that are barely enough to survive on.

Way back when, the creation of repertory theater companies was all the rage.  Essentially, a theater company would set down roots in a specific city or town.  They would have an ensemble of actors, directors, playwrights, and designers that would perform in this city or town and perform shows intended for that specific city or town.  The artists would earn fair wages and there was a strong community among these artists.  However, this is not the case anymore.  Nowadays, regional theater companies throughout the country will bring in creatives, often times from New York, who will do the play and then leave.  No relationships are built with the theater staff.  No relationships are built with the audience members.

“But, Pat!  Are not corporations money-makers?  Isn’t this the best way to funnel money into the theater, an industry that, no offense, doesn’t have much money?” Eh……yes and no.

Sure, corporations do make money.  But there are many more that don’t make money.  I’m no business expert, but those corporations that succeed are those that know what they are doing.  They know their mission.  They sell incredible products or services.  They have a strong community of employees.  And they develop strong relationships with their customers!  Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner!!

In a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to run a theater like a corporation, so long as there is a unique and specific strategy in doing so.  Those involved must understand what kind of animal they are dealing with.  Theater is about community.  Theater is about the audience.  Theater is not about the people onstage.  It’s about creating a story for the audience.  And, let’s be real.  An audience will be much more excited to see a show if they have a special connection to at least one of the actors onstage, if it’s someone a part of their community.  I also think communities will be more interested in seeing a show that they can relate to on some level.  They want to develop relationships with the actors they see on stage.  As an actor, I love talking to audience members about a show I did and hearing their thoughts and insights on what the play might have provoked in them.

Whether we are talking about theater or corporations or both, there needs to be community.  These terms are not mutually exclusive.  If the theater starts picking up what it means to be a community, then those seats will start filling up and perhaps it can operate quite nicely as a corporation.

Now, imagine if art got the attention that technology does?  Of course, one can argue that technology is art, but I’m talking about art that is separate from modern-day technology.  How do artists cultivate that kind of attention?

I have talked about “the attention economy” in some of my previous posts.  How can creative artists tap into that?  I’m not talking about an obsession with theater or art per say, but the tech industry is creaming the artists!  Why see a play when we can watch a movie?  What go see a live band when we got Spotify?  Why go to an art museum when we have Instagram?

I do still believe there is a market for art.  In a world that is so digitally connected, I do believe arts organizations are having a difficult time figuring out how to win over audiences.  Perhaps arts organization need to focus more on community engagement.   We need to brainstorm what will get people back into the theater, back into museums, and back to being exposed to art regularly.  Corporations do make money, but they need community and they must appeal to their customers.  Without that, we will just retreat back to our online worlds.

What are your thoughts? Comment below!


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