“Yes, And…”: Audiences Building a Sustainable Arts Community

At The New Movement in Austin and New Orleans, collaboration thrives, the audience-artist line is blurred, and community is built-in.

Image: Brian Tarney.
At The New Movement, the audience is not separate from the art. Image: Brian Tarney.

In today’s cultural landscape, where online streaming and social networks are king, arts organizations are constantly competing with much cheaper and accessible forms of entertainment. In order to sustain meaningful audience engagement, many arts organizations aim to market themselves as uniquely different, providing a service or experience that movies, television, and other arts experiences do not.

Some of the most intriguing and successful examples I’ve seen of arts organizations making this distinction are groups that create interactive relationships with their audience. Moving beyond a one-way form of communication (where the artist produces their work, which the audience experiences, and then goes home), these innovative arts and culture organizations are creating experiences where communication goes both ways, and where the line between audience and artist blurs.

When the audience says, “Yes,” the arts organization says, “and…”

One of the main tenets of improv comedy is “Yes, and…”: the idea that when you are presented with a scenario or offer from your scene partner, you must affirm it and add on to it. The New Movement (TNM) is an improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy collective with satellite theater venues in Austin and New Orleans that lives by the “Yes, and…” rule — not just onstage, but also in its structure and management.

To learn more, I connected with Tami Nelson, co-founder of TNM with Chris Trew. “The improv venues we saw [in Austin] felt very stale,” said Nelson. Both comedians wanted to start something that was completely different from the traditional structure of improv venues, which often serves as a platform for actors and comedians to move onto higher paying film and TV gigs, as is the case in improv hubs like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

They wanted to create a space for people to be creative, non-competitive, and most importantly, part of a community. Nelson says, “The pressure of wanting to be successful feels really counterproductive for what we are trying to do. We find our students getting better faster because there is trust.” This mentality provides a continuous stream of audience members, who later turn into collaborators and comedians at TNM.

Arts center as the neighborhood hangout

TNMLogoTNM offers a full schedule of improv and sketch classes, live shows Wednesday through Sunday, a regular stream of online material, frequent tours, and hosts festivals that attract comedians and improv troupes from all over the country. Nelson and Trew have fostered a safe creative space where people from all walks of life — artists, lawyers, waiters, veterinary assistants, teachers, you name it — can take weekly classes and become a part of a tight-knit creative community within a year. Any student or alum has access to regular rehearsal space, an unlimited talent pool to collaborate with, and opportunities to perform in weekly comedy shows.

Students and alumni are allowed free access to almost all shows, making them the foundation of TNM’s audience base and its main source for attracting new audiences. New Level 1 improv students often share that they started taking classes because their friend or co-worker wouldn’t stop talking about how much fun they were having. Trew compares the vibe of the theatre to the neighborhood record store or community center where all the kids hang after school. “It’s the clubhouse with all the art supplies to make things. Our business model is to treat people the way you want to be treated, and anyone who wants to put in the work gets to play with all the toys.”

Environment of joy as the key to sustainability

TNM is known in New Orleans not just as a place that produces shows, but a community or social club that any audience member can be a part of. This opens TNM to a continuous flow of new audience members and participants, revenue, and social capital to increase the sustainability of the organization. Though this was not the primary intention, Nelson says it has become a byproduct of a larger desire to “create a space for people to come into themselves, to learn and grow and find their own voice, to do what they want to do, and be a badass.”

This mentality is what fuels the community to get things done; from box office to tech booth, TNM students and alumni commit to managing the theatre simply because it is a fun place to be. Creating an environment of joy, where relationships and collaboration can thrive, has turned out to be the key to TNM’s sustainability.

Audience members can often feel a lack of connection to the artist presenting the work they are seeing. The stage or spotlight can easily divide people from those that watch and those that create. TNM has fostered a mentality that everyone is an artist, everyone can create, and everyone’s voice should be heard. The audience is not separate from the art at all; they become the funder, producer, audience member, and the performer.

Learn more about instances where the audience collaborates with an arts organization’s creators or curators. Watch the Co-Creating with the Public Talks from the National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture.

About
Francesca McKenzie is a theater maker, educator, yoga teacher, and community organizer based in New Orleans. She is a company member of Cripple Creek Theater, an ensemble that produces socially and politically relevant plays to spark positive social action. She has worked with numerous theater companies in New Orleans such as Goat in the Road Productions, Southern Rep, and The NOLA Project. She is also a theater arts integration teacher through Kid SmART at several New Orleans Charter Public Schools. Follow her on Twitter @CheskaMcKenzie.

  • Francesca McKenzie

    I would wonder if “traditional” arts organizations are interested in breaking the barriers between audience and artist. A lot of these art organizations are created to showcase the traditional idea of an artist, often someone who has had higher education within that art form. I do think it is interesting that those are the art organizations that are struggling with bringing in new audiences, whereas new groups like The New Movement are having no problem at all. If traditional art organizations are seriously interested in this sort of transformation, it would mean a much larger philosophical and structural shift.

  • Robert Paterno

    Thank you for the article. As a theatre artist (with an MFA), access to and transparency in the theatre are major personal issues for me. Programs like this one in New Orleans provide both, which I would love to see more of in the traditional theatre. The Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, a more traditional theatre, recently provided community members access to and input on the rehearsal process for one of their shows, making them greater stakeholders in the production and the theatre. It’s not a complete integration of community and institution, but I think it’s a great start and something upon which an even more personal and impactful relationship can be built between artist and audience. When audience become true stakeholders, rather than just patrons or donors, magic starts to happen. You can read more about it on their blog at:
    http://gevajournal.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/clubbing-at-geva/
    Thanks again for the article, and for keeping theatre alive in my old stomping grounds of the Gulf Coast!

    • Francesca McKenzie

      Thank you for reading and sending the Geva Theatre blog along! I am also interested in seeing how this sort of mentality translates through different art forms.

  • Kelvin D.

    What I love about Improv Groups is that they are often the unsung heroes in the arts community. They thrive on organic creation, ensemble based technique, tremendous creativity through comedy and engaging an audience that becomes hooked on what they are selling. I had a friend invite me to a UCB show at around 10PM on a weeknight and he informed me of where it was and how to get tickets. I was shocked to see a huge line outside waiting to be let in to buy tickets at the door and enter the underground venue. Once inside I saw nothing but young people, a cheap bar to buy booze (and actually drink that beer from the comfort of your seat), and I felt like I had entered a different atmosphere.

    Kudos to the arts organizations that value the joy of creative place-making and building a community around your art as opposed to a traditional audience who subscribes or just buys one ticket because your institution used a mainstream marketing gimmick to get them in the door. I miss the “ensemble” attitude in theatre sometimes because it often looks like administrators and then the artists that facilitate the work as an institutionalized form of entertainment. The fact that improv just requires a space and some chairs for the audience to sit (and a well placed light operator) is fundamentally what I love about creating art and presenting it to an audience. I wish more companies thought like improv groups in structure and management.

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