The Patron/Playwright Experiment

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Introduction Process Impact

Introduction

About Geva Theatre Center

Founded in 1972, Geva Theatre Center (Geva) is dedicated to collaboration—to creating an environment in which artists, staff and patrons find a supportive home that values and nurtures imagination, exploration and trust. Located in a community whose cultural fabric is becoming ever more diverse, Geva elevates and celebrates the human experience through a six-play mainstage subscription series that features a wide variety of musicals and American and world classics. Its Nextstage offers contemporary drama, comedy and musical theatre, Geva Comedy Improv, a New Play Reading Series, and the Hornets’ Nest—an innovative play reading series that facilitates community-wide discussion on controversial topics. Geva presents 500 performances annually, serving 160,000 patrons, including more than 16,000 students.

About the Project

Despite being proud of Geva’s long history of commitment to artists, staff and patrons, the Theatre’s staff were beginning to sense an emerging complacency. Was Geva really capturing and nurturing imagination as they hoped? Were artists and patrons interacting in ways that promoted trust and allowed for discovery and exploration? Were they resting on their laurels rather than provoking new thinking?

Believing they could do more, Geva’s staff designed a new Patron/Playwright Experiment (PPE) to create opportunities for patrons and playwrights to establish direct, personal relationships. Through the multi-dimensional project, Geva brings several playwrights to Rochester multiple times each year to participate in a wide range of activities, including both artistic and social events. Author’s Voice events feature short readings of the writer’s work and a conversation guided by Geva’s literary director; The Festival of New Theatre offers more formal readings, patron-centered creative experiences, workshops, and Bake-off Plays in which playwrights write a scene, monologue or song inspired by their experiences in Rochester.

Starting Conditions

When Geva joined the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, the Theatre already had a long, successful history of working with playwrights, and it had a strong following of loyal patrons. Like most organizations, however, Geva had little experience in establishing common ground where visiting artists and subscribers could interact in an extended and personal way. Playwrights came in, stayed through rehearsals and opening, and then were gone. Patrons bought tickets to a show and then went home until next time, with no real exposure to the purpose, process and production elements that had made the play come alive. Patrons and artists were walking along two parallel paths, and Geva staff believed they were missing a promising opportunity—not only to build a deeper appreciation for the artist’s voice, but also to elevate the audience’s emotional and financial investment in the Theatre. What might happen, they wondered, if circumstances allowed these two universes to collide in robust and meaningful ways?

No one was certain, but everyone knew that to facilitate such an intersection, Geva would have to shift from its transaction-based behavior with both patrons and playwrights to relationship-building efforts marked by conversation and mutual influence. As staff began to think about initial steps, they adopted new vocabulary: Geva would stop being an artistic curator and instead become a “relationship catalyst” that would transform its core constituents from casual associates to “Gevangelists.” They assumed that if they were successful, patrons would have a better and broader understanding of theatre-making; playwrights would know more about Rochester and about Geva’s audiences; and Geva would become financially stronger and more customer-friendly. It would be a win-win all around.

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Process

Prototyping

To test its hypotheses, Geva set up a carefully organized prototyping experiment. At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, Geva invited 100 patrons, including subscribers and donors of varying levels, to participate in a Playwright/Patron Experiment (PPE). From this group, Geva staff identified 34 patrons who would attend at least one PPE event. To this patron group, they added 14 staff members, the Innovation Team, and five playwrights who would come to Rochester multiple times throughout the year.

Image: Geva Theatre Center.
Image: Geva Theatre Center.

PPE was a multifaceted artistic and social undertaking, and Geva designed each component of PPE to provide patrons with substantive behind-the-scenes access to writers. New Author’s Voice events—which proved exceedingly popular—explored several works by each playwright; social events, including meals, boat rides, baseball games, and other activities gave patrons, staff and playwrights plenty of time to talk informally. The project concluded with a two-week Festival of New Theatre for which all playwrights were present. During the Festival, Geva hosted readings of excerpts from new plays, organized a bowling outing, and provided an opportunity for patrons and playwrights to work together creatively on something (a sewing project) that had nothing to do with theatre. Finally, Geva challenged playwrights to a “Bake-off,” giving them several ingredients and four days to write a short play for public showing.

To help shift the organizational culture in support of this new approach, Geva gathered a group of staff members (separate from the Innovation Team) to establish new service standards that aligned with the organization’s strategic plan and the intent of PPE. The group attended workshops with Geva’s Human Resources firm, adding new members from various departments throughout the process. Geva also contracted with Monroe Community College’s corporate training program to create a custom training course focused on patron/artist/staff-centered exceptional service. Geva then offered facilitated training sessions for the entire staff.

Shifts in Assumptions

When talking about Geva’s experiment, Literary Director Jenni Werner likes to quote Albert Einstein who said, “If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research.” Like all researchers, Geva staff were in for both surprises and validation. Werner identifies three major assumptions underlying Geva’s work in developing the PPE.

Patrons will eat this up, but playwrights might be resistant.

Werner admits staff may have been overly naïve in thinking it would be easy to find 50 patrons interested in going to dinner with a playwright. They were wrong. “It’s not easy to get people to participate in an experiment,” says Werner. “It requires a new way of thinking about Geva and about how to relate to Geva, and some patrons are more ready to do this than others.” Playwrights, on the other hand, were eager to participate, learning as much about Rochester as Rochester learned about them. Writer Eric Coble says, “I have a clear sense of who some of the core members of the Geva family are now….It made me hungry to do more of this with other theatres, to get to know the people and community better instead of just going from hotel room to rehearsal hall.”

This project will change the way we do business.

Nothing could have been more true, says Werner, and EmcArts facilitator John McCann agrees. “The greatest issue facing the Innovation Team,” he says, “was the question as to why they were pursuing the artist/patron strategy.” Many on the staff thought the project was about money—generating more revenue and strengthening Geva’s bottom line. Others took a longer view, believing that developing relationships over time would result in greater loyalty to and support for the Theatre. It didn’t take long for momentum to shift in favor of relationships over transactions, strategy over legacy. Money became a lagging indicator of success. “The true benefit,” says McCann, “was positioning Geva as a place and Rochester as a community where people who write plays and people who see them can learn a great deal about each other.”

Werner says that while it is still too early to judge results, there is more transparency at Geva than ever before. “We explain at every turn,” she says, “that we’re trying something new, that we want feedback, and that the feedback we receive will impact upcoming events.”  That level of transparency is not always easy, but Werner is encouraged by the progress she has seen and believes the experiment is working. One patron’s responded to Geva’s request for feedback, saying, “Geva is loosening up!”

If we set up experiences, artists, staff and patrons will discover common ground and new pathways to belonging.

PPE already is building solid bridges within the Geva family as participants let go of their own traditional assumptions about how relationships typically work. Marketing staff, often leery of direct input from artists, like sharing creative marketing ideas with playwrights, and writers are learning important lessons about what everyone in the Theatre does to support their work on stage. A patron notes, “Live theatre should be a three-way process between the audience, the actors and the playwright. It is great to see Geva reach out to the community in this way.” One student participant comments that his view of playwriting has changed completely. “I used to think of playwriting as a man in some dark room, and I only thought of the words. Now when I read my lines for a show, I ask myself, ‘What would the playwright do?’” Writers, who admit to suffering through many lethargic interactions with audiences, have been pleasantly surprised by what they are finding at Geva. “I am surprised and thrilled by the energy and insightfulness of the talkbacks,” says one. “Reading from three different plays and discussing why I write and what it means to me is very moving.”

A reading of "Love/Sick" (by John Cariani) from Geva's Festival of New Theatre. Image: Geva Theatre Center.
A reading of “Love/Sick” (by John Cariani) from Geva’s Festival of New Theatre. Image: Geva Theatre Center.

Obstacles and Enablers

Having grant money to hire a project coordinator was critical to PPE’s success, say Geva leaders, who are already very busy. At the same time, creating ways for staff to be involved in the project added a necessary dimension to the work. Consciously reaching across departmental boundaries and involving people from production and box office to marketing and development gave more traction to the work, increased transparency between artistic and administrative functions, and build a new and healthier respect for the audience’s role in the creative process, as well as a genuine reciprocity and shared vocabulary around the Theatre’s work.

Despite this transparency, there was some internal resistance to shifting to a more relational business model. Uncertainty about results, unfamiliarity with best practices in customer relations, confusion about roles and responsibilities, and a lack of time were all initial barriers to full engagement within the organization.   Acknowledging the need for customer service training and working together to develop Geva’s new customer service standards provided tremendous leverage for shifting the organization’s business model. What made the effort unique and successful, say Geva’s leaders, was the broad involvement of staff in designing the standards.

Geva leaders are also quick to point out the role grant money played in allowing them to experiment. Without the pressures of producing short-term bottom-line outcomes, the process could focus on building deeper and longer relationships with patrons and playwrights.

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Impact

By the Numbers

“What can I say? It was an incredible experience,” says one audience participant in PPE, while a playwright adds, “Oh boy, I just think it was a great experiment.” In all, 34 patrons joined the prototype group, and 21 participated in at least one event. A significant number (16) did not participate at all, but most reported that this had more to do with scheduling problems and time than with any lack of interest. In a survey circulated by Geva following the project, 100 percent of respondents said the PPE experience met or exceeded their expectations. Just under 86 percent said they had expanded their understanding of playwriting; 72 percent said they had a closer relationship to Geva; and 54 percent said they expected to increase their commitment to the Theatre. “I felt more part of the process, part of the family” says one audience participant.

Among patrons who participated in at least one activity, 63% increased either their donation, subscription package, or in some cases, both. Of those who were interested but did not participate, 31% increased their commitment.

Artistic events were generally more popular than social events (which many said tended to be somewhat awkward). Over 90 percent recommended continuing the Bake-off and Author’s Voice events. As one participant says, “You don’t really understand the creative process without having a window into it. The interesting piece was the iterative process of creation.” Playwrights agreed that the artistic interactions with patrons were illuminating, and that the experience of writing under pressure was a powerful learning experience that “stretched” their writing muscles. “I learned that I can write under pressure,” says one playwright, who calls the opportunity “a privilege.”

Views from Geva's Bake-Off event. Image: Geva Theatre Center.
Views from Geva’s Bake-Off events, where playwrights write a scene inspired by experiences in Rochester. Image: Geva Theatre Center.

New Pathways to Mission

“The whole process has been a gift to Geva,” say organizational leaders. “We came to the table with general concerns about serving our patrons and artists, a desire to create a residency program, and an ongoing concern about the structural imbalance of our finances. We had no idea the experience would help us shift the way we do business and open our staff to a more positive approach to theatre-making.”

One of the most productive new pathways, in fact, may have been completely unanticipated. As Geva set out to develop a new kind of residency, staff discovered that their ideas and “little experiment” were redefining relationships beyond original expectations. What they created was not so much a residency as multiple intersecting communities. “We made a community,” they say, “a community of playwrights who are still in touch with each other; a community of patrons, playwrights and staff members; a community of staff members who wanted to do better; and a community of patrons who fully embrace Geva and can speak fluently about our theatre-making.”

Through this process, staff say they discovered that Geva’s programming was more ad hoc than organic. As a result, they are thinking more holistically, exploring ways to “merge, cut and refine offerings” in order to offer patrons multiple entry points and opportunities to explore Geva’s work in a deeper way. Working from the new service standards created as part of this project, Geva now evaluates programs and performance through the lens of service, engagement and relationships.

Artists speak eloquently of the impact Geva’s residency model has had on them, saying they feel a part of the Theatre’s season rather than just a commodity brought in for a single show. “Clichéd as it sounds,” says one writer, “it feels more like home. I know the staff better. I know some patrons. I feel welcomed and that there’s a curiosity about what I’ll bring in next, which is a great feeling—knowing there is someone interested in what you do next.” Enabling this two-way conversation is still new for Geva, but already the approach is catching on. “Often there is a distance between the people on either side of the curtain,” says a playwright, “and I was glad for the opportunity to pull the curtain back and remove what barriers exist that needn’t exist.” Among playwrights, word is spreading about what Geva is doing, and playwrights say they hope other theatres will have the courage do take a similar approach.

What’s next for Geva? Staff admit there is more work to do, and they would like to be able to share these kinds of conversations with designers, dramaturgs, actors, and other theatre artists. “We knew this would be a long-term process and that some of the results from this experiment wouldn’t be fully visible until much further down the road,” says Werner, “but what we’ve learned so far has encouraged us to keep on this path, to keep looking for new ways to put our patrons and our artists at the center of everything we do, to keep finding new ways to become the catalyst for new kinds of relationships in the theatre.”

That they are doing something right is certain. As one playwright says, “I already talk about the cohort group everywhere I go. It seems both obvious and radical.”

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