Denver Center Theatre Company (A division The Denver Center for the Performing Arts)
With an annual budget of $11 million, Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) is the largest professional company in the Rocky Mountain region. DCTC was established in 1979 and operates under the umbrella of The Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Led by artistic director Kent Thompson, DCTC produces a season of classical and contemporary plays on three stages and hosts the annual Colorado New Play Summit. Over three decades, DCTC has mounted more than 330 productions, including 88 world premieres.
In 2010, economic conditions led DCTC to cut $1.3 million from its budget, reduce its number of productions, and phase out the National Theatre Conservatory, its Master of Fine Arts Acting Program. The organization believed that these steps would protect DCTC’s core mission and give it flexibility to reinvent its business model. However, Thompson realized that DCTC had to reconsider more than just marketing, pricing, and space. He had to put content, what happens on stage, on the table. Thompson challenged the staff to think about:
- What will the next development in theater performance will look like?
- How can we use technology to engage audiences?
- How do we make the audience co-creators?
- How can we make The Jones feel like a neighborhood haunt?
- And how can new programming create a dialogue with our regular season and fuel further innovation at DCTC?
At the same time, the staff recognized that The Jones, a small theater located on a difficult to access area of their campus was being underutilized. They decided it was an ideal testing ground for new ideas and starting developing Off Center @ The Jones, as a multimedia laboratory designed to expand the Theatre’s audience base, engage patrons in new ways, and diversify programming.
The Innovation Lab
DCTC was accepted into Round 4 of the EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts and started the program in June 2010. The Innovation Lab is a three-phase program that provides a strong framework in which new strategies can be explored and prototyped in relatively low-stakes environments before a full launch. Read more about the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts.
During Phase I of the Lab, the team realized they needed guidelines for the programming. Tarquin suggested they call it a”recipe” for The Jones and delineate the qualities of what The Jones should offer into ingredients. Ultimately, the five criteria identified by the team for the recipe – immersible, convergent, connective, inventive, and now – became a vision statement for seeking our new, non-traditional material and how to produce it.
Initially, DCTC’s team focused on young audiences whom they believed would be most interested this new programming. The Lab, however, challenged their assumptions about their target audience and they started talking about their audience more in terms of adventurous spirit than age.
The team also thought young people would be more engaged by splashy technology and edgy, less traditional plays, but learned that their DCTC’s Fourth Wall Group responded equally well to traditional plays. As a result, the team stopped viewing The Jones as a testing lab for how to use technology and instead began thinking about using technology to engage people.
Prototype #1 – The Ultimate Wii Baseball Game
The first prototype was an “The Ultimate Wii Baseball Game,” an after-party for The Catch, the Theatre’s world premier production about a man who tries to catch a record-breaking homerun. “The Ultimate Wii Baseball Game” was designed as a night at the stadium, with teams, scoreboard, live commentators, coaches, mascots, baseball snacks and beer, and other activities. Guests were assigned a team via red and blue t-shirts handed out at the door, although no one was required to participate in the game.
With “The Ultimate Wii Baseball Game,” the team said it succeeded in creating an event where the “normal rules of theatre did not apply.” Follow-up focus groups indicated that people had enjoyed the event, participated in the game, and interacted across social groups. About half the 140 attendees were newcomers to DCTC. The biggest challenge was internal: how to enroll the staff more effectively in new projects. “We need to better educate our staff about the dual purpose of our programming…about how our work exists on a spectrum between audience development and theatrical innovation.”
Prototype #2 – Buntport Reading
In the second prototype, DCTC created a multimedia lab, collaborating with local artists, engaging audiences in the creative process, and building an interactive environment in The Jones. The Theatre commissioned Buntport, a local ensemble, to create a multimedia play and workshop the piece with technology at the New Play Summit. The curatorial team designed activities to take place before the show and followed up with participants afterward. DCTC also used polling technology (polleverwhere.com) to create a “choose your own adventure” talkback after the workshop, incorporating audience feedback in real time.
The collaboration with Buntport produced mixed reactions. Although DCTC says it learned a lot about how to use technology to engage audiences, the project also forced Buntport to work in a way that was uncomfortable for them. This stifled Buntport’s creativity and resulted in a final piece that was not as good as it might have been. “We learned that we can be better curators by working together to determine the goals, content and process,” staff say. Using interactive technology, however, was a big success, and DCTC reports that the Poll Everywhere voting was effective in engaging audiences and guiding a conversation.
Prototype #3 – Hip Hop Jambalaya
The final event—Hip Hop Jambalaya—was designed to help DCTC establish an effective curatorial process. A showcase for local hip hop talent, the event was unlike other prototypes in that it had a substantial rehearsal and development period and four performances over two weekends. DCTC says prototyping helped them move more quickly than they had expected.
What DCTC learned about marketing and curation during the first two prototypes helped demonstrably in Hip Hop Jambalaya. The curators worked closely with the show’s conductor, helping shape his vision and providing the logistical, artistic and technical support to realize it. The team is now documenting formal curatorial procedures. At the same time, they generated considerable word-of-mouth buzz—primarily through social media—about the show by working with a group of artists/collaborators who had large followings of their own. The team was surprised, however, that the promotional reach did not generate large audiences. The first two shows attracted 56 people, but the third jumped to 118. DCTC is still trying to understand the reasons for the initial poor showing, as well as the reasons for the big jump at the end. Most of all, they say, “we realize that growing an audience takes time…we need to build on that momentum.”
Obstacles and Enablers
What made DCTC successful in moving its prototypes forward? Several things were certainly critical: the composition of the team, Thompson’s unflagging support, and his willingness to empower the team to make decisions. Seventy percent of the team was under 35, and while Thompson refuses to take credit for the team, his willingness to vest authority in others created deep ownership of the process and outcomes.
The Jones, too, was a critical asset. “The DCTC is a bit like a castle,” explains Thompson, “and people feel like they have to cross a moat to get to us.” Because The Jones has an entrance separate from the other theatres it is a more accessible entry point to the DCTC “Castle”
But it wasn’t all easy. Thompson says it was “startling” to discover how hard it would be to make their case once the team returned to Denver. The Denver Center is a huge organization—with a $52 million budget (including a large Broadway touring series) and lots of employees, many of whom have been around a long time. The team admits they hadn’t really thought about the difficulties of enrolling others in their ideas, and they discovered they had to answer persistent questions about why they wanted to move in a new direction. The team credits the Lab with helping them work on their enrollment message and tactics. As Miller says, “There is a big desire in our organization to do this work, but there’s such momentum in the direction we’re already heading…and we are learning a lot about what it’s like taking on an initiative like this inside a big organization. It’s a tremendous undertaking to change the organization’s culture, and it’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of thought and conversations to make that happen.”
Another defining moment came as the team worked on developing prototypes. They had an epiphany when they realized that prototyping was not just about testing programming and ways to attract audiences. It was also needed to learn how the skills and capacities to curate multi-disciplinary events and how to fit them into our existing organizational structure. Thinking more broadly inspired the team to see The Jones as a permanent learning space both for staff and the DCTC as well as for external audiences and participants.
Perhaps the biggest learning from DCTC’s prototyping was that The Jones attracts its own core audience. While DCTC will continue to target people who are enticed by a specific event, curators are focusing now on “building our core audience of adventurous patrons who get excited about anything that goes up in The Jones.”
New Pathways to Mission
Thompson says the organization has come a long way in building capacity for innovation in preparing for a new way of working. Such a radical shift is challenging for DCTC, and the Theatre is learning to work more collaboratively with local artists and audiences, trying to modify a deeply entrenched 30-year-old model. Thompson hopes DCTC will ultimately apply the techniques it learns in The Jones to its other stages.
The Board voted to raise an extra $100,000 to support the first season of Off-Center, and a donor has pledged to pay for a new marquee for The Jones. DCTC also has formed a core team of four staff members to manage Off-Center, and the organization is budgeting additional staff support to free up the team’s time for this work.
Artists who never had a place at the DCTC table participated in the prototypes and are staying engaged, providing feedback, advice and energy to Off-Center. Staff are talking regularly with other organizations around the country. This has a huge impact, not only because it brings new perspective to the organization, but also because it contributes to the development of emerging leaders in the field.
Above all, DCTC has developed discipline around Off-Center programming. The team chooses projects that reflect the values and strategies they have defined, and they are specific about what they want to test and how they will evaluate success. While they acknowledge they are still learning, they are deeply motivated and energized. Thompson says the impact of this work is being felt everywhere.
Our old way of thinking was about big productions and high production values all put together in a well-organized season. In our new way of thinking we want to keep our dedication to classics and new plays, but we want to be more nimble—breaking the mold, mixing it up, and making people feel the way they do when they come to the Summit. This will be healthy for us as an organization.