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No higher calling: How to engage next-generation support

While audiences for professional theater across the U.S. are on the decline, The Atlanta Shakespeare Company is filling their Tavern Playhouse year-round with a young and diverse audience. 

Artistic Director Jeff Watkins, a former street magician and maverick actor-manager from Texas, says he’s as surprised as anyone to have discovered a viable market in the South for a company performing Shakespeare nearly every month of the year. Of course, our ability to replenish our audience isn’t an accident: In great part, it’s the result of long-term dedication to serving educators and students. Every year, ASC works to create future audiences through its education programs. 

Here are a few of the tactics that have been central to engaging our next generation of supporters: 

Answer an educator’s recurring need. Consider Romeo and Juliet. Spring 2020 will see ASC produce the tragedy for a 23rd straight year, and the annual production is a lifeline for teachers across the region who find themselves teaching the play to a new batch of students every year. It’s also served the ASC internally as a perennial challenge and source of inspiration: “There’s no higher calling than to bring your A-game for these kids, because that will determine their opinion of theater and Shakespeare for the rest of their lives,” said Watkins.

Be direct and consistent. The company has adopted a signature performance style called “original practice,” using numerous elements from the Elizabethans: a bare or sparsely decorated stage, period costumes, direct address with the audience, and little emphasis on visual spectacle. Watkins sees declining audiences nationwide as a reflection of young people’s reluctance to connect with modern directors and designers, who create visual metaphor in dialogue with Shakespeare’s text. “That approach can be wonderful, but that's heady stuff,” said Watkins. “Grad students and theatre people love it. Normal people don’t.”

Productions often cast the same long-term ensemble of actors, but no matter who is onstage, teachers can be confident in the company’s clear and approachable aesthetic.

Build on what works. Since long-term ensemble member Laura Cole founded the ASC’s Education Department nearly two decades ago, the department has grown into a five-person operation, with programs that reach over 30,000 students each year. Offerings include summer camps, touring productions, and after-school residencies. These programs combine to form a holistic strategy for creating new theater audiences that Cole jokingly calls the Nefarious Plan: Students encounter live performance through a matinee, then return for summer camps or classes, then return as audience members – or even as professional actors. Later, they introduce their own children to “The Tavern,” beginning the cycle anew. 

Take your show on the road. No matter how large the demand for field trip matinees of Romeo and Juliet, there are only so many performances and seats available. To meet the ever-growing demands of partner teachers and schools, the ASC created a touring program entitled R&J: 60 that can travel to any school in the state of Georgia and deliver an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet is a single class period. Like the full-length production and its corresponding in-class workshop experience, R&J: 60 meets multiple Georgia Performances Standards for ELA and Theatre.

It’s worth noting that the field-trip-frequented matinee runs sell out annually, serving as the company’s most dependable source of revenue. And while matinees performances don’t include food service, students notice the tavern setup and come back at night with family members or dates. “A thousand times I’ve gone up to parents of middle- or high-school students at a show here,” said Watkins, “and when I thank them for bringing their children, they tell me that their children actually brought them.”

Kristin Hall was education and development manager for The Atlanta Shakespeare Company from 2008 to 2013; she now runs a freelance copywriting service called Nonprofit Wordsmith, based in San Jose, CA.

Jeanette Meierhofer is marketing manager and assistant to the artistic director at The Atlanta Shakespeare Company.

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