Cleveland Public Theatre: Transforming Neighbors from Curiosity to Ownership

Above, listen to the story of the Cleveland Public Theatre’s new approaches to building the audiences of tomorrow.  This is one of 12 Audio Postcards about arts organizations generating strategies to engage younger and more culturally diverse audiences as participants in Engaging the Future, a program of EmcArts and the Cleveland Foundation.

The Cleveland Public Theatre’s (CPT) mission is to “nurture compassion and raise consciousness through groundbreaking performance and life-changing education programs,” according to Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan, who describes CPT’s work as “the most cutting edge theater in Cleveland.”  They choose work “that really address[es] critical issues” and present it in a style that isn’t just a live version of TV.

In the past 10 years their neighborhood, the Gordon Square Arts District, has transformed around them from a tough area into a burgeoning urban center with “60 new business[es]” in the last 5 to 6 years, says Bobgan. But thanks to the efforts of the local neighborhood organization, the community still “has a lot of income diversity “ according to General Manager Denis Griesmer, “So, even though there’s been a lot of new housing and renovated housing, it’s still a unique, integrated neighborhood with a lot of different people.”

One of the adaptive challenges CPT faces is that the theater’s audiences don’t reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of their complex community.  Bobgan says that “what keeps me up at night is that continual sense that, still, when I look out at my audience, I am seeing primarily a Caucasian and African-American audience” and “I’m not seeing the Arab-Americans that call Cleveland home. I’m not seeing the Asian community.” Despite the diversity of their neighborhood, CPT is still struggling to attract a representative audience. “I think 30% of the people who live here in the Gordon Square Arts District are Latino,” Bobgan says, “and they’re not coming in our doors. If they don’t see this as their theater, then that means we’re failing.”

One response that they are considering is a radical re-envisioning of the role of local communities in the creation of new work. “We dream of a CPT where there are artists on staff who are going out in communities and creating great theater,” says Griesmer, “and the act of creating great theater with those communities also impacts the work that those artists create.” In other words, CPT wants to move beyond merely inviting neighbors to co-creating with them.

But in order to do that, Bobgan knows that they need to “stop focusing on the acquisition of new patrons through traditional means. Instead, let’s focus on moving people from curious to a sense of ownership and they will be our best marketers.” If they’re successful, Bobgan says optimistically about the future, “Ultimately, I think what we’re talking about has such a huge significance here in Cleveland. And I think lessons could be learned here that could be shared in a much broader community.”

About

Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts, where she leads the development of ArtsFwd.org, an interactive online platform for arts leaders to learn and share stories about adaptive change and the power of effective innovation.