Last fall, Francesca McKenzie of ArtsFwd posted about a pair of improvisational comedy schools/clubs (The New Movement) in Austin, TX and New Orleans: “Yes, and.” Ms. McKenzie begins with an acknowledgment of a fundamental truth about the competition faced by the arts today:
In order to sustain meaningful audience engagement, many arts organizations aim to market themselves as uniquely different, providing a service or experience that movies, television, and other arts experiences do not.
We do not exist in a vacuum. Our potential audiences have increasing numbers of attractive alternatives for leisure, social, and/or creative outlets. An option for some arts organizations is to re-imagine their relationship with the public.
Moving beyond a one-way form of communication (where the artist produces their work, which the audience experiences, and then goes home), these innovative arts and culture organizations are creating experiences where communication goes both ways, and where the line between audience and artist blurs.
TNM does this by applying a basic principle of successful improvisational comedy: they take whatever their colleagues say or do and build upon it, “Yes, and.” TNM incorporates the “and” concept in programming and management functions.
TNM offers a full schedule of improv and sketch classes, live shows Wednesday through Sunday, a regular stream of online material, frequent tours, and hosts festivals that attract comedians and improv troupes from all over the country.
Students and alumni are allowed free access to almost all shows, making them the foundation of TNM’s audience base and its main source for attracting new audiences. . . . Trew compares the vibe of the theatre to the neighborhood record store or community center where all the kids hang after school. “It’s the clubhouse with all the art supplies to make things. Our business model is to treat people the way you want to be treated, and anyone who wants to put in the work gets to play with all the toys.”
TNM is known in New Orleans not just as a place that produces shows, but a community or social club that any audience member can be a part of. This opens TNM to a continuous flow of new audience members and participants, revenue, and social capital to increase the sustainability of the organization. . . . [Emphasis added]
This . . . fuels the community to get things done; from box office to tech booth, TNM students and alumni commit to managing the theatre simply because it is a fun place to be. Creating an environment of joy, where relationships and collaboration can thrive, has turned out to be the key to TNM’s sustainability.
In other words, TNM’s school serves as an entryway to inclusion in a community of actors and comedians that in turn is a broad base for expanding community participation in its offerings.
Audience members can often feel a lack of connection to the artist presenting the work they are seeing. The stage or spotlight can easily divide people from those that watch and those that create. TNM has fostered a mentality that everyone is an artist, everyone can create, and everyone’s voice should be heard. The audience is not separate from the art at all; they become the funder, producer, audience member, and the performer.
This particular approach may not be for every organization, but keeping the community in mind and considering what “and” might mean in your own context is a good way to begin developing the relationships upon which engagement is built.