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True Colors Theatre

Community Engagement: Adding Value to Productions, Developing New Audiences, and Supporting the Mission - All at the Same Time.

By Jennifer McEwen, Former Executive Director, True Colors Theatre Company

Thanks to The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, True Colors was able to expand a marketing initiative that we first tried in 2013: a Community Conversation Series. We were able to use the grant to produce a community conversation series for the entire season, focused on cultural understanding, with each conversation directly tied to a theme within the three plays we produced during 2016-2017. This grant allowed us to look at each True Colors production as a question for the community — How does race influence the law? What can save failing schools? How can we combat the stigma of mental health? In addition to deepening our relationships with our existing patrons, we found that these conversations have also introduced new patrons to True Colors.

We started this series in 2013 with one conversation each year, connecting topical social issues with themes in our plays and giving participants a safe space to discuss race and issues surrounding race. The goal of our Audience Building Grant was to expand these conversations from one to three (in a year) to fill patron demand. We were able to accomplish this, starting in October 2016 when we hosted the first conversation for the season: an expert panel to discuss “Combatting the Mental Health Stigma in the African American Community” before we opened David Auburn’s “Proof.” The group included psychiatrists, counselors, and journalists and was one of the most engaged and impactful talks we’ve held. Audience members discussed in-depth additional challenges and hurdles that people of color encounter when dealing with and finding resources for mental health issues.

In February, we hosted a one-on-one conversation with Monica Pearson interviewing Dr. Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, at Clark Atlanta University. The event was well attended with an unusually diverse audience, and it was evident that we were reaching an audience beyond the traditional True Colors ticket buyer. Similarly, our June conversation around “Race and Policing,” moderated by social justice journalist David A. Love and featuring Atlanta’s Chief of Police Erika Shields, journalist Alexis Scott and Rev. Markel Hutchins, was equally successful in generating both attendance and audience engagement. This conversation had a packed house and a diverse audience, many of whom were first-time attendees. We used these events to offer special incentives to future True Colors performances, and we have successfully reached new patrons.

This grant gave us the freedom to explore different venues for each conversation, partnering with the Southwest Arts Center, Clark Atlanta University, and Actor’s Express. We strategically chose our venue partners based on the conversation topics, based on our assumption that audience demographics are correlated to venue location. We used grant funds to pay for travel, lodging for our out of town speakers, technical support, marketing and PR initiatives to support the programs, including radio and print press, social media promotions and email promotions.

We found that planning for this initiative allowed our team to implement innovative and strategic methods of engagement for both the theatre company and the community. The conversation series has been set up in a way that introduces new and existing patrons to our work. These free programs created a safe and nonjudgmental environment for our audience to express thoughts and opinions about issues facing their community. Our community conversations have added value to our productions for our existing patron base and engaged nontraditional theatergoers in our work, which then translated into ticket sales.

To see more about our community conversations, click here:

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