Off-Center’s Prototype Debuts on the Mainstage

How did Denver Center Theatre Company apply Off-Center’s Curation model to its mainstage programming?

Off-Center at the Jones' production of The Legend of Georgia McBride was part of their third season of experimental, audience-focused performances. Image: Denver Center Theatre Company.
Off-Center’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride was part of their third season of audience-focused performances. In this photo, an usher and Shirley Delta Blow pose in the Ricketson Theatre Lobby. Photo by Lauren Driscoll.

Editor’s note: We’ve been following the story of Off-Center at the Jones (an initiative of Denver Center Theatre Company) ever since they participated in EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. (We recently published a case study following their project and process, and you’ll find other updates on their work here.) This month, in alignment with our July topic of making art with (not for) audiences, we’re sharing an update from Co-Curators Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin on Off-Center’s third season.

With the successful completion of Off-Center’s third season of programming, we have released our annual Season Recap document, which outlines our accomplishments and learning (not to mention experiments in co-creating with our audience) from the past year. A highlight for us was taking our Off-Center learning and applying it to the larger organization (the Denver Center Theatre Company) on a scale we had not attempted since Off-Center was established in 2011. This experiment in mainstage Curation was generously funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Here is a brief overview of the prototype we tried out this year:

Question

How can we apply the Curation model developed at Off-Center to our mainstage programming?

Defining Curation

At Off-Center, the Curators are the artistic leaders with a broader eye toward the total experience, not just what happens on stage. For mainstage shows, the Curator’s role is to expand the artistic vision to enhance both the audience’s experience and the artistic process. Curators act as liaisons between departments to ensure that a cohesive vision of the show is maintained through all internal and external communication.

Hypothesis

Curation on the mainstage will improve our internal collaboration and enhance the audience’s experience.

Experiment

  1. Illustration by Kyle Malone.
    Illustration by Kyle Malone.

    Select the play – the world premiere production of The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez, about an Elvis impersonator who becomes a drag queen in order to support his family.

  2. Work with the core creative team to understand their vision for the production and ensure that it inspires all of our work around the play.
  3. Distill the artistic vision into an “Ignition Point”, an easy-to-remember tagline that is shared with everyone across the organization working on the show.
  4. Challenge everyone involved in the production (from the designers to Marketing to Front-of-House) to think outside of their traditional roles and discover how the Ignition Point applies to their work and how they can contribute to an expanded experience around the show.
  5. Develop a specific plan for transforming the lobby to immerse audiences in the world of the play from the moment they enter. Turn a lounge area into a small drag club and hire local drag queens to perform every night after the play.
  6. Encourage a less formal atmosphere that relates to the dive-bar setting of the play by dressing ushers in tuxedo shirts (instead of tuxedos), installing a margarita machine in the lobby bar, and allowing drinks in the theatre for the first time.
  7. Gather data to evaluate these efforts – send ticket buyers a post-show email survey to determine if the Curation enhanced their experience, survey all staff involved and conclude with a post-mortem meeting to discuss what worked and what didn’t.

Results

  • The production was an artistic and box office success. It received positive reviews, lots of national interest, and surpassed its revenue goal. 24% of the single ticket purchasers (660 ticket total) were new to the Denver Center.
  • The audience survey proved that our Curation work did in fact improve the patron experience. Returning audience members rated this experience significantly higher than previous experiences and indicated that they enjoyed all of the elements of the expanded experience equally (with a slight preference for the lobby décor and drinks allowed in the theatre). New audiences similarly enjoyed all of the expanded experience and indicated they were very likely to purchase tickets to a future play because of this positive experience.
  • After seeing the high marks for allowing drinks in the theatre (and observing that there were significantly fewer spilled drinks than was feared), the executive staff decided that drinks should be allowed into all of our theatres, and that policy now remains.
  • The staff survey and post-mortem revealed that the overwhelming majority of staff agreed that Curation enhanced the process of creating the show in addition to the patron experience. We can improve how we plan for this type of work in the future and better incorporate it into the production timeline. Marketing staff felt that, had we known more of what the experience was going to be in advance, we could have better leveraged that as part of our marketing. A final meeting with all of the stakeholders for this project reinforced the positive and constructive feedback and generated excitement for continuing this work next season and beyond.

Learning

Applying Curation to a mainstage show improves our internal process by breaking down traditional organizational silos, increasing collaboration, and unifying everyone around the artistic vision of the show. Designing a more complete experience around the show increases audience engagement and enjoyment.

Matt McGrath and Ben Huber in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. Image: Jennifer M Koskinen.
Matt McGrath and Ben Huber in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s world premiere production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. Photo by Jennifer M Koskinen.

Next steps

The success of this experiment and the positive feedback we received encourage us to move forward with Off-Center Curation on the mainstage. With this experience behind us, we are planning to apply Curation to all of our productions next season, and have a dedicated budget and cross-functional Curation Team to support this work. We recognize that each play can be expanded and enhanced in different ways, and are working to identify the best methods to maximize the audience experience for each one. That might mean an immersive lobby experience for one play and a series of curated conversations for another. The experimental nature of this work will continue, and we will regularly utilize surveys and data to guide our decisions in the future. Above all, we will strive to keep the artistic vision for the show at the core of everything we do. To learn more about Off-Center’s Season 3 programming and the other experiments we conducted, download our full Season Recap document.

Next for Off-Center

We have reached an interesting juncture in the life of our innovation project, which began in earnest four years ago with the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. We intentionally started Off-Center small and on the periphery of the larger organization so that it would be protected as it established its own identity and operating culture. Now that it has proven itself as a valuable testing and audience development wing for the Denver Center, Off-Center needs to become better integrated into the day-to-day work of the larger organization so that it can be more sustainable and have a greater impact. While Off-Center will continue to exist as a separate brand externally, our internal operations will treat Off-Center no differently than the other programs at the Denver Center. This internal integration has slowly progressed over the past three seasons, but we are now deliberately moving to anchor it in the organization.

Additionally, we have completed another round of strategic planning for Off-Center, which resulted in a refreshed purpose statement: Off-Center is a theatrical testing center generating new ideas, experiences, and practices to enhance the Denver Center, engage the communities of Denver, and advance the field of theatre.

We are adding some new members to the Off-Center team and reorganizing staff responsibilities to position Off-Center for continued growth in theatrical offerings and experiments. So, as we look back on the past three years of launching Off-Center and establishing it as a vital part of the Denver Center, we look forward to creating original theatrical experiences and testing new ideas for the next three years and beyond.

You can read all posts about Off-Center at the Jones here

About
Charlie Miller & Emily Tarquin are the Co-Curators of Off-Center @ The Jones, the test kitchen for the Denver Center Theatre Company. They lead the research and development of new theatrical ideas and curate unique audience experiences that expand the shows before, during, and after – inside and outside of the theatre.