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September 25, 2020: On Being Members

Good day,

It always feels good to have a sense of belonging — and especially in these isolating times that sense of community, of being part of a group with shared purposes, outlooks and humanity, is all the more important.

I’ve been noticing a movement that has been emerging in the last month of two, with some arts venues moving away from the traditional subscription model to explore one that features memberships.

The difference is in more than just the details. It’s in the feeling of belonging to a greater good.

As one artistic director of a theater told me of his new approach to reach out for a different kind of commitment: “This is a shared journey with our audiences and a way to say, ‘We are all in this together.’ ”

The traditional subscription model — which Danny Newman’s “Subscribe Now!” advocated (and which revolutionized the field) — has not always been an effective one in changing and challenging times. It’s a business template rooted in a specific series of seasonal productions and, although many have added perks to subscriptions — parking vouchers, meet-the-cast gatherings, ticket substitutions, it’s still basically tied to a fixed schedule.

But these are not fixed times.

As many arts organizations have had to close their doors —with no quick or easy return to re-opening at full capacity — they have found it necessary to present alternatives to keep their followers interested, engaged and active. Some of the results have been extraordinary and inspiring.

Audiences have found excitement in alternative spaces, such as the Seattle Symphony’s performance at a drive-in. Or the Atlanta Ballet's plan for the “Nutcracker” at a similar space. Or the English National Opera’s “La Boheme” at London’s Alexandra Palace’s parking lot in London. Or a tail-gate event in an open field for a book fair.

The examples keep rolling in globally.

Then there’s the wide range of online activity and the virtual experiences that are being explored, something that’s been talked about for years by many arts groups but have often been placed on back burners.

“An explosion of such shows — either recorded or streamed live on YouTube or Zoom – has brought invention, resourcefulness and hybridity of form,” writes Arifa Akbar in The Guardian.

Many of these virtual events have dovetailed with other aspects of an arts organization’s mission and which also makes them feel so right for the times.

“The best of them have come in the shape of theatrical activism, especially amid the Black Lives Matter movement, made cheaply and with a speed that a live theatrical production could never match,” she writes. “These have included a YouTube series about racism experienced by British East Asians as a result of Covid-19, the Bush theatre’s ‘The Protest’ after the killing of George Floyd, and Roy Williams’s ‘846,’ all of which combined the arts, politics and activism. There has also been the Almeida’s Shifting Tides series, which focused on climate activism in audio plays made by their young actors.

Yes, there are so many ways to engage arts audiences wanting a cultural experience that is either enriching, relevant or just plain fun. But how to frame all these activities into a comprehensive — and hopefully able-to-be-monetized — whole?

I talked with Rob Ruggiero, producing artistic director of the inventive, quick-on-its-feet TheaterWorks Hartford here in Connecticut. His lean team of young arts innovators have switched from a subscription base (of around 5,000) to a membership model and have found the response surprising, with as many “members” signing up for the coming year as there were “subscribers.” (People can do this as monthly members or for a 12-month period, either as individuals or as households, with many options for engagement.)

The initial online opportunities have also allowed the theater to do more play development that it had always wanted to do — and find the right audience for that experience. It also enabled the theater to take a leadership role in the community engagement of social justice issues.

The theater has plans to do events that can be done remotely, some filmed in the theater and streamed online. There are “watch parties” and even “after-show gatherings in virtual lobbies.” When it’s safe to return to the theater — allowed by the government and the unions — there are plans for a simulcast model for those who might be hesitant to return to enclosed spaces right away.

Ruggiero says his new philosophy of being nimble, adaptive and liberated from bricks-and-mortar buildings is simple: “We want to be Netflix, not Blockbuster.”

— Frank Rizzo


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