By Liz Hartnett Santamaria, Aurora Theatre
For 22 seasons, Aurora Theatre has worked to be the theatre that reflects our community. We have been committed to diversity through our casting, storytelling, programming, and hiring. As much as our audience diversity has evolved in those years through specific, conscious choices, we still have work to do when it comes to our audiences. In October 2016, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation's Audience Building grant gave Aurora the chance to test a couple of solutions to challenges we have faced for years. These challenges are around translating inclusive programming to attract diverse audiences. We implemented strategies to develop new, inclusive audiences that better reflect our local demographics, building upon the recent growth of our Teatro Aurora Latinx-focused programs. During the two years leading up to the grant award, we held non-revenue-generating events that engaged groups not regularly attending the theatre. These events had begun to shift the diversity of Aurora’s audiences, so we decided to invest in a deeper exploration of these free engagement activities. Specifically, we set out to commission more professional Spanish translations for the theatre and to reach more directly into our community via the public schools, which reflect the richness of Gwinnett County’s diversity.
Speaking a Cultural Language to Build a More Inclusive Audience
The results of testing our ideas were somewhat unexpected. On the one hand, we had learned in prior empathy-gathering activities that our Latinx audiences generally want to be catered to separately from our mainstream theatre audience. We had expected that incorporating more bilingualism into our Harvel Lab Series and other productions would increase language accessibility and therefore integrate Latinx audiences into the rest of our season. However, we learned that cultural accessibility was more important. An example: Sweep¸ a play in English by a Latina playwright, was a better crossover point for Teatro Aurora audiences than our professional Spanish translation of A Christmas Carol. The trust in the cultural perspective was worth more than breaking down the language barrier. Our trust-building work with the Latinx community (through outreach/engagement events and artistic representation) led to a 50% increase in engagement event attendance in one year, compared to our expected 10% growth. We found another corollary with the growth of African-American audiences over the past year: we paid attention to the stories we were telling on stage by going beyond casting inclusively and telling stories of the African-American experience. This invited inclusive perspectives and audiences into the conversation. By being proactively inclusive in our season planning and outreach practices, we grew audiences across the board in our mainstream programming. We can see it in our data: investing in inclusivity is paying off for Aurora.
Aurora Went Back to School. And Then Something Magical Happened...
The second part of our technical assistance grant yielded even more unexpected results. Aurora decided to offer 8 residencies serving more than 500 students, instead of the 4 we originally planned to offer. In the course of our residency work with Central Gwinnett High School, we encountered a demand for these enrichment programs that exceeded even our expectations. The Fine Arts Academy at the high school was not the only department that thirsted for the perspective that in-classroom professionals can offer; other departments wanted to participate.
In spring 2017, Central Gwinnett High School invited Aurora to open a satellite office on campus, gave us the office space, and established twice-weekly office hours for our Education Coordinator Renita James to become the Artist-in-Residence at CGHS. This rapid scaling-up of our partnership was a testament to the need for educational outreach to engage students. We have:
- coached individual students;
- mentored young people interested in careers in the creative economy;
- taught marketing students about public speaking;
- integrated arts-based projects into American history classes; and
- established project-based learning activities for students to study the business of theatre.
We have helped students interview successfully for jobs. We have hosted a symposium on women in the arts to give teenage girls role models in leadership.
And – critical to our audience development endeavors – those students have come to Aurora Theatre to experience live performances, and have brought their friends and family along with them. Having Central Gwinnett High School as a second base of operations has built significant credibility within the incredibly diverse community served by the school; it is a placed where families are comfortable gathering because their children’s ownership of the space creates a safe environment for exploring the broader community. The programs we have developed have not only enriched the CGHS classroom curriculum and training models, but have also helped Aurora Theatre redefine the questions that need answering in our audience development journey.
We set out to test the idea that to develop more inclusive audiences, Aurora needed to do more outreach in the community. We hypothesized that by being more directly active with the young, diverse (both racially and economically) community in Gwinnett County Public Schools, theatre education could spark participation as a theatre audience member, and that participation would draw in students’ families, as well. In the last year, we have succeeded in engaging a younger audience, which has historically been a challenge for Aurora. TIXSTER is our membership program for young adults aged 16-35, which offers deeply discounted tickets, last-minute offers, and young adult-exclusive events. Since ramping up our presence in the schools, TIXSTER membership has increased by 46% over the last year – 84% of which were new-to-file.
A Paradigm Shift in Aurora's Audience Development Behavior
The learnings for Aurora are ones that can be applied organization-wide, beyond the Education and Marketing departments. First, we thought we needed to break the language barrier to engage Latinx families, but we learned that some programs, especially those that represent different voices and stories (no matter the language), reach across cultural boundaries instead. While our Teatro Aurora Spanish-language show does attract a large portion of our Latinx patrons, they are also increasingly happy to integrate into our mainstream programming – as long as we market our full season properly to them.
Second, depth can yield as much or more impact as breadth. By immersing Aurora Theatre in the campus culture at CGHS, we have opened doors across the curriculum, engaged multiple generations, and had a lasting impact on students by preparing them for jobs – and not just jobs in the arts.
Finally, instead of an “if you build it, they will come” attitude, asking or expecting inclusive and younger audiences to come to us, we simply have to go to them. By taking a proactive approach, we demonstrate our commitment to developing all audiences, not just our most lucrative patrons or the ones we have traditionally attracted.
These takeaways have already sparked a change in Aurora Theatre's behavior. Our experience as we went through this project – at times feeling around in the dark, at times charging ahead with confidence – has spawned future projects that will increase our outreach presence. For example, we are developing a partnership with the PATH Project, which brings educational workshops, tutoring help, and counseling directly into low-income neighborhoods, many of which near us in Gwinnett County. Aurora has a unique opportunity to bring arts-integrated learning and activities to the PATH Project's activities. This outreach will be mission-driven, and while it will develop audiences, we expect it will have less to do with revenue-generating audience building, and more to do with our brand development. However, we have begun over the last year to produce off-site community festivals, like our Dia de los Muertos festival, that have been a boon to developing more inclusive audiences for revenue centers like our Mainstage and Studio productions.
Testing our hypotheses and tactics taught us valuable lessons. Part of those lessons includes what not to do. Our cautionary advice starts with a very important warning: do not give in to the temptation to make assumptions about your what your audiences want or need! It is very tempting to make these assumptions, which often appear in insidious ways. We sometimes make intuitive leaps about the issues we need to solve. Don't assume – just listen.
Our second piece of advice is not to be afraid to change course. We found surprising and wonderful ways to increase both our community impact and our audience growth by taking Central Gwinnett High School up on its challenging and exciting proposal of opening a satellite office on campus. That alone has been worth the hurdles and unexpected twists of this process.
Finally, we recommend establishing ways to track and measure results before you set audience development projects in motion. Will you use promo codes widely? Will you track individuals'/families' journeys? Will you use interviews and surveys? While Aurora DID set metrics for ourselves at the outset, our journey took some turns; before we embarked on those new developments, we should have updated our metrics to keep ourselves accountable. As it turns out, Aurora was able to meet goals and expectations, but we could have improved on our evaluation process.
Our audience building journey is revealing itself as we go, through trial and error, redefining the problem and testing new solutions. While our results may have diverged from our expectations, the results we DID achieve set a course for our entire organization to become even more inclusive and welcoming for racially, ethnically, and generationally diverse patron