Friday, August 15, 2014

Exiting Managing Director Charlotte Tiencken addresses bringing new audience to Theater

Charlotte Tiencken, Myra Platt & Jane Jones accepting the Governor’s Arts Award (photo courtesy of Book-It Repertory Theatre)
We have a few unsung arts heroes in our community that join boards, serve on commissions, and support multiple artistic efforts in quiet and prolific ways. One of those is Charlotte Tiencken, and she is leaving us! She’s not just leaving her post as Managing Director of Book-It Repertory Theatre, but her bio says she also has, “taught at Seattle Pacific University, the University of Washington, The Evergreen State College, and the University of Puget Sound. She has been an adjunct faculty member at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. for ten years. Charlotte is past president of the Board of Arts Northwest. She has served on the Board of the Pat Graney Dance Company, on granting panels for the Washington State Arts Commission and 4 Culture, and was president of the Board of Theatre Puget Sound. Her most recent directing credits include Into the Woods for Vashon Drama Dock, Eugene Onegin for Vashon Opera, and Rashomon for Seattle Pacific University.”

That is just part of the effort she has poured into the Pacific Northwest artistic community over the past twenty years! She has been at Book-It for seven years. She is moving to Charleston, South Carolina to teach arts management at the College of Charleston. They will be very lucky to have her, because there is no doubt that she will busy herself becoming invaluable there, too.

Charlotte and I had a conversation, recently, discussing her tenure at Book-It. She describes some of what she found when she got there and found a much smaller (than present) organization with a high turnover in staffing and an unclear future plan. “When I took over in 2007 the budget was half what it is now. I asked, ‘What do you want?’ And we determined a direction. Part of that vision was being sustainable, having staff that was committed and not going anywhere.

“One of the biggest things was getting out of the offices we were in with Seattle Shakespeare Co. under the food court (in the Seattle Center), and it had gotten to the point where we were on top of each other and things had to change. We’d get rained on by pizza guts or water would leak from the food court, no windows, and it wasn’t a very good space!

“My goal was to stabilize the organization, build its staff to a strong professional staff and move the offices to reflect the 25 year old organization that we are. And to continue to produce high quality work that reflects the mission of the organization. We’ve double the staff to 12, we’re in wonderful new offices, and continue to grow. We have a huge education program that has made a difference to students throughout the state  through classes (summer camp or one-day school workshops), and touring productions, and residencies of teaching artists in schools (for 2 to 3 week periods). Education now adds to the budget instead of breaking even or a net loss.

“We keep the art consistent and strong and do risk-taking work, like the five hour long Kavalier and Clay. That’s part of what Book-It is about, to take those risks.”

I asked Charlotte about an enduring struggle for that and every other theater: audience development. I wanted her to address both the idea of a younger demographic and a wider diversity of ethnicities that could be courted. While she doesn’t claim to have it solved, she does offer some cogent thoughts for other managing directors to think about.

“I think Book-It has the same struggles (as other theaters), the graying population. (We found one aspect for us is) it depends on the book that is done as to whether it draws a younger audience. Kavalier and Clay drew a younger audience.

“The demographics in Seattle are changing so fast that we arts organizations don’t have the ability to keep up. We have so many young people who are moving here to work for Amazon and Google or whoever and live theater is not even on their radar screen at all. How do we attract that audience that maybe has never even come to theater at all?

“I think it would be great to have a community effort to talk about that issue and attract the young people who go to bars and movies and video games and don’t come to the theater. How do we get them to take that chance?

“Book-It’s capacity for marketing is not as great as some, like the Rep and 5th Ave and it would be great to pool our resources to focus on this issue together. The Symphony is doing a little of this: finding ways to get that audience to pay attention by bringing in a hip hop artist to perform with the Symphony. That drew hundreds of people to their doors that would not have come otherwise. Maybe those people will buy a ticket in the future.

She’s Come Undone was focused on young women in their 20s, and they didn’t really respond to it as much as we thought and we haven’t quite figured out why that was the case. It, first of all, does have to be good literature, and then we have to see what age it attracts. That would something that the new managing director could focus on. Keep your eye on the mission and do good art and sometimes take a risk.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was amazing. We thought it would attract an Asian-American population but we didn’t know it would sell out before even opening. It was astonishing. Snow Falling on Cedars helped the population know about Book-It and people had been to see it and wanted to come back, so (Hotel) absolutely built on what happened with Snow Falling on Cedars.

“Years ago, I was the producing artistic director at Tacoma Little Theater. When I came, the person before me had started, ‘Let’s do one African American play a year and attract audiences to the theater.’ The first three years, African American people would come, but it wasn’t (huge audiences). By the time I got there, they’d been doing it for five years and people in the African American community were starting to come to these plays. But it took some time to get there.

“What I learned was: You have to keep trying! One time is not going to do it and consistency is the key. Really let diverse populations know you are committed to that. 'We’re not going to just do one (production).' I think that is very important. TLT's program grew exponentially and a lot was word of mouth, and that’s something that goes on in Seattle, it’s a big word of mouth town, and you have to be persistent.

“Did Asian-Americans subscribe after coming to Hotel? We do show that some subscribed after coming to Hotel. But it’s a hard question for every theater of how to make those diverse audiences be a part of coming to all of the (season's) shows instead of only the shows they relate to culturally….getting them to come back, and then subscribe, and then become a donor.

“One (aspect I think helps) is finding out what they want and helping them feel at ease in the theater. Being open to listening. We have open technical rehearsal where people can come and watch and ask questions and see behind the scenes work to make a show happen. We also do pre- and post-performance talks and try to find ways to help people feel ownership of what they see on stage.”

Charlotte thinks those techniques and more of a community-wide effort will help build audiences. I think she has listed some very specific and fairly simple ideas that can be put into practice in other, even small, companies. The community-wide efforts, in my opinion, could perhaps be focused on learning techniques to properly market to specific audiences, paying for targeted marketing experts, perhaps, to better identify how to reach audiences of color or youth or never-attended-before folks. Let’s not just make every tiny theater have to figure it out over and over all by themselves, often with volunteer press people!

Charlotte will have a lot to miss when she moves. “I’m going to miss the people and the nature and beauty. The staff at Book-It, a lot of my friends I consider family that I’ll miss. I’ve already made plans to come back for the holidays. The world is small. (Fortunately, husband) Bill is looking forward to the move!” Perhaps some of those arts managers that Charlotte teaches will end up coming to Seattle to work!

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