Silk Road Brings Audiences Into the Loop / by R. Sheth

February 13, 2009

Silk Road Theatre Project (SRTP) has rolled out an innovative audience engagement strategy that reaches beyond producing plays to provide several opportunities for patrons to connect with the company. The basis of the strategy is that the more information an individual has about the process of producing theatre—why a play was chosen, what influenced the playwright, etc.—the more likely they are to support it. It seems to be working. SRTP saw a 200 percent increase in individual donations last year.

“Art does not speak for itself,” said SRTP executive director Malik Gillani. Patrons often need help connecting to the art, and SRTP is developing ways to do that.

“While I don’t expect people to understand how to produce a play, I’m astonished at how little they know,” said artistic director Jamil Khoury. Fortunately the more that patrons know about the theatrical process, the more they appreciate it.

The other reason for developing this strategy is more quantifiable, and that is funding. Gillani observed that corporate and foundation funding is not sustainable. It is the individuals who are committed to the organization that will endeavor to keep it going, even when the economy tanks.

SRTP’s audience engagement strategy reaches their patrons through education, theatre and conversation. All the elements that go into this strategy are free for those utilizing them, and the company endeavors to stay in touch with their audience even when they are not producing a play. “You can’t afford to do plays year round but you have to engage your audience year round,” said Khoury.

The three parts of the strategy are: before they come to the play, at the theatre, and post attendance engagement.

Before they come to the play, SRTP introduces patrons to the work via their magazine and CAN-TV show, “Silk Road Sojourns,” as well as a podcast and a blog. Through these media, SRTP introduces their audience to the playwright, director, designers, and other key artists involved in the production, to present a well-rounded, multifaceted view of the show.

SRTP also brings the playwrights into town whenever possible, and invites their donors and subscribers to meet the writer. These events happen at all times of the day, and even at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, Gillani said that they are very well-attended.

Khoury noted that there is a “hunger for wanting to be in the know,” and in utilizing these media, their audience becomes as knowledgeable as they want to be about any upcoming production.

Once an audience member is at the play, iPods are available to borrow in the lobby loaded with podcasts about the production. These recordings are just a few minutes each, and provide quick insight into what they are seeing on the stage. The podcast recordings are also available online, but what Gillani and Khoury have found is that people listen during intermission, when they have the context of the production as a backdrop, and the podcasts provide more context for what they are seeing.

The theatre also has a post-show discussion after every Sunday performance.

After someone has seen the show, Gillani keeps in touch with a weekly e-newsletter, which includes links to all the online media, so that they may access the information in whatever format best suits them. All of these connections make it difficult for someone to simply walk away after seeing a production.

Khoury noted that this process gets the company as invested in their audience as the audience becomes to them. They’ve even had their own “celebrity sighting” moments out in the community, where someone will recognize them from the cable TV show. They noted that they’re finding that their audience wants to engage them outside the theatre.

“Theatre can elevate, it can enlighten it can do all sorts of important things,” said Khoury. “The audience that seeks us out is ready to grapple with new ideas, and Silk Road Sojourns furthers that. It’s also a great tool for us to hone our own thinking.”

So far no one has complained that all this communication is too much. None of it is forced on anyone—more like it is put out there for people to take or not. The audience engagement strategy has been integrated into SRTP’s preplanning and preproduction process, as well as into their PR and marketing budgets. And they are “fully utilizing” their current staff to pull this off.

“I don’t think you can create this kind of engagement model with all volunteer or part-time staff,” noted Gillani, which is the downside for many companies that need a strategy like this.

If your company is planning your own version of this type of strategy, Khoury cautioned that you have a “strong sense of how it relates to your mission and how it speaks to your mission.” Such a strategy needs to be highly focused in order to avoid brand confusion.

Gillani noted that you need to be “very patient and have a quality standard in mind.” Throwing a bunch of communications and media at the wall to see what sticks is not a strategy. Take some time to craft a sensible plan, because something like this takes a lot of time and human resources to implement.

Once you do, you may be pleasantly surprised, like Khoury, who said, “The biggest surprise was that we could do it.”