Audience Engagement’s No Man’s Land

Photo via flickr.
Photo via flickr.
What in the heck do the words "audience engagement” mean?  

I recently attended the Theatre Communication Group (TCG) Annual Conference in Dallas, where a major focus of discussion was that very topic. For three days, I listened to panelists, questioned participants, and considered the discussions. I met many bright managers who passionately explained how they are trying to bridge the perceived gap separating potential audiences from their theater companies. I regret to report that no one could offer a concrete definition of the term “audience engagement”.  

It seems to me that two separate meanings and means of measuring success are intertwined in the use of the term:

    • One meaning addresses an organizational need to sell more tickets, as measured by sales volume and earned revenues.  

    • The other is code for addressing organizational or community dissatisfaction with the composition of the audience already in attendance.  Everyone knows we live in a multicultural world. If our audiences are measured as “highly educated, wealthy older white people,” organizational relevance becomes difficult to manage on any level. 
When pushed, not a single manager I encountered at TCG with “audience engagement” in their job title (or job description) could distinguish the difference between goals for audience growth and diversity.  This is worrisome.

Two Very Different Goals

Intertwined and confused as one or the same challenge, engagement is likely to remain an insolvable organizational aspiration. 

Both audience growth and diversity are important strategic endeavors that require a great deal of hard work, each of a different kind.  One can find numerous insights and case studies about audience growth on our firm’s web site. For this post, I want to focus on diversifying audiences.

Changing the composition of an audience is a much more difficult journey of institutional discernment than is increasing the size of an audience. 

I’ve been trying to create more diverse audiences for a long time, dating back to free neighborhood concerts in Cincinnati during the early 1980’s, then The Cleveland Orchestra’s Community Music Project, and the Music of the America’s endeavor in Texas.  I even received a Martin Luther King Award for my work in San Antonio in the early 1990’s. Here’s what I learned along the way.

In Cleveland, everyone was aware of the racial divide that separated the orchestra from many who lived and worked in our community. For decades, African Americans were a vital part of life at Severance Hall. The embarrassing fact was that the only people of color at Severance were those who cleaned the building, checked coats, provided for security, parked the cars or bused the tables at the conclusion of a meal or party. These invisible people were, for many decades, never invited to attend a performance.  

As a naïve young marketer, I thought all I had to do was invite them.  We were nice people and the orchestra was a treasure. Who could possibly refuse to such a generous offer? Everyone, I quickly learned. Today’s audience engagement professionals are learning a similar painful lesson.

A cultural experience from that era helped me understand the challenge we face.  

The Wall(s)

Photo by Paul Sableman via flickr.
“The Berlin Wall was actually two parallel walls
separated by
an empty void; a stark and ominous
no-man’s land
occupied the middle ground.”

The Cleveland Orchestra toured Europe in 1985. We played a concert at the Berliner Philharmonie, the iconic concert hall just west of the site of the Berlin Wall. During my first free moment I walked to Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous portal that allowed passage from West to East.  

The Berlin Wall rose during my childhood. I had always envisioned it as a single monolithic structure. It was not. The Berlin Wall was actually two parallel walls separated by an empty void; a stark and ominous no man’s land occupied the middle ground.  

Today’s communities contain similar cultural and racial divides. Whether intended or not, walls of exclusion were built around theaters, orchestras and museums. The excluded simply built parallel walls of their own, separating themselves from the cultures that valued them so little. Safe behind their wall, each culture flourished and grew independent of the other.  

When seeking to tear down barriers of culture, it is not enough to say, “Hey! We tore down our wall. Please join us.” A no man’s land has no ears. Those we seek are separated on the other side of their parallel wall. 

One wonders if today there are parallel walls existing between the arts and persons of Hispanic origin, those born in the last 30 years or other unrepresented people in the communities our organizations serve.

Not a Marketing Problem

We have to recognize that audience engagement by diverse audiences is not a marketing issue. Clever messages, slick campaigns or better search engine keywords completely miss the point. 

Creating greater diversity is an issue of mission and, ultimately, product. Improved audience engagement encompasses every decision an organization makes—especially those influencing what we put on stage, in our exhibits and collections. It takes bold leadership from the top, not a well-meaning marketing manager filled with energy and optimism—and often no political clout—to change the course of an institution.

It seems to me that if organizations want a different culture (in the broadest sense of the word) to notice, embrace, and become engaged with your workthe faces on your stage must reflect the faces you hope to attract into the venue. The faces in your offices and boardroom must also reflect this community. Your theater, gallery, or concert hall must become a center for gathering and activityfor all of your community.  

We look forward to studying the results of efforts currently underway to diversity the composition of audiences. And, we’ll applaud those courageous enough to lead organizations and present arts that engage the audiences they seek, as well as those who find them. Their success will bend the arc of history in their communities and in our industry. 



Posted June 27, 2013




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