Audience as Advocates

JANUARY 2018 ISSUE: 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:

Adjusting Course: Reframing for Better Results

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.

Core Dance

Who is your organization's primary target audience?

  • With two "home" cities and lots of touring hard to market to both.

What is your organization doing to reach or deepen the relationship with them?

  • New logo and branding this year.  Lots of email communications. Have added free performances and ways to utilize and invite into their space ie the Dance Film Festival in May. Social - need to use it to grow the relatioships with the dancers themselves.


  • Board buy-in
  • email campaigns
  • social 

The ACP Journey of Audience Building: From Data Desert to Data-Informed

By Amy Miller, Executive Director, Atlanta Celebrates Photography

During 2016, the Audience Building Roundtable offered member organizations a four-part workshop series about audience building practices. TRG Arts, a national consulting firm focused on the arts and culture sector, led the workshop series.

After the first workshop, we had a realization. We are a visual arts organization that produces mostly free and open events at various partner venues (including outdoors) so data collection through ticketing is not something we have ever done. Most of what the workshop presenters spoke to the Audience Building Roundtable about would not apply to us.

What Need Does our Audience “Hire” us to Fill?

A Conversation with Marguerite Hannah, Associate Producer, Horizon Theatre Company

Marguerite Hannah attended the November 2016 National Arts Marketing Project Conference with a scholarship provided by the Audience Building Roundtable initiative of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Marguerite shares her insights from the conference in this blog.

My biggest takeaways from the National Arts Marketing Project Conference are (1) the importance of living your brand, and (2) being empathetic to the needs of our audience.

Art of Change: Three Lessons Emerge from the Fleisher’s Audience Building Work

Magda Martinez sat down with The Art of Change for an interview about audience building, portions of which are excerpted here.


Art of Change (AoC): What are the most important things you and your colleagues learned in your audience building work?


What’s the Missing Piece in Audience Building?

This post is excerpted from the plenary session of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s November 2, 2015 workshop, Art of Change: Building Your Organization for Audiences. This is from an exchange among Dr. Bob Harlow, the moderator and lead researcher for the Wallace Foundation’s audience building initiative and three panelists, all of whom were participants in the Wallace initiative:  Ellen Walker, Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet; Magda Martinez, Director of Programs for the Fleisher Art Memorial; and Christopher Taylor, President of The Clay Studio.

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