Returning D.C. hits power up auds

Two shows tap into communities they serve

WASHINGTON — Give the people what they want: Two Washington, D.C., theaters are doing just that, and in the process have jump-started their seasons.

Woolly Mammoth Theater and the Arena Stage have adopted the strategy of reprising productions from the past year that resonated with theatergoers within the community.

Woolly Mammoth has remounted Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer winner “Clybourne Park” for a three-week run that began July 21, while Arena Stage has slotted its new B.O. champ, “Oklahoma!” for a full 12 weeks.

The bookings have been accompanied by innovative outreach efforts to further expand and diversify their respective audience bases — efforts that could serve as models for other regional theaters looking to exploit previously untapped potential in audience development and community relations, and help offset recent government cutbacks in funding for the arts.

In the case of “Clybourne,” Woolly a.d. and “Clybourne” director Howard Shalwitz calls the show “perhaps the most successful production in our 31-year history,” adding that it’s a perfect play for D.C. because it mirrors issues of race, power, gentrification and urban development in relevant ways to a community experiencing those same dynamics.

Woolly Mammoth began preparing for the reprised production, which won Helen Hayes Awards for direction and resident play production, last December with the launch of an initiative to create links with the troupe’s surrounding community. The remount, with last year’s cast intact, provides a valuable tutorial on exploiting the appeal of a show’s snowballing momentum.

Called “Connectivity,” the program reps a new way of thinking about a theater’s relationship with its neighbors, says Rachel Grossman, Woolly’s recently appointed director of the project, which includes the participation of marketing, creative and fundraising staffs.

Grossman says the project is about more than simply putting butts in seats; it’s about “identifying particular individuals who need to be in the seats of any given production to make the engagement more meaningful and exciting.”

For “Clybourne Park,” the concept is manifested in several ways. For starters, every performance during the show’s run is followed by post-performance discussions hosted by special guests including city leaders, artists, professors and journalists.

Woolly Mammoth also is focused on bringing in key individuals within the surrounding community who are invested in the topical issues raised by the play. The theater has invited 50 neighborhood bloggers to the show to participate in discussions and answer the question, “Is your neighborhood Clybourne Park?”

The connectivity effort draws on social media platforms including the theater’s own blog, podcasts, Twitter, Facebook and the post-show discussions. Additional elements include audience-building efforts with local schools and youth groups, and a re-examination of the theater’s approach to how it creates its programming.

Meanwhile, for “Oklahoma,” Arena has contemporized the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, adding multiracial casting among other touches to help fill its Fichander Stage last season to 99% capacity. The tuner shattered Arena box office records, with a top ticket of $106.

Execs at the theater note that Arena has emphasized audience diversification throughout its 61 years, including a promotional presence at Washington’s annual Black Family Reunion at the National Mall and ticketing initiatives with African American church groups.

It arguably courts the African-American community more aggressively than any other major theater in D.C., with outreach, education and play selection, with recent seasons including “Sophisticted Ladies” and “Crowns,” both tuners with significant appeal to African- American theatergoers.

Other diversity efforts linked to “Oklahoma!” include marketing events for gay and lesbian auds and a vigorous campaign to attract children, with a program that includes a family-of-four ticket deal and moppet-friendly events held in front of the theater.

The 1943 tuner seems an unlikely vehicle for diversifying audiences. Ted Chapin, prexy of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, extols the contempo attitude and race-blind cast of the Arena staging, which includes Arena stalwart E. Faye Butler, starring as feisty matriarch Aunt Eller, among several African-Americans in the cast.

“(Arena Stage artistic director) Molly Smith’s production unlocked something in the show that Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t know was available,” echoes the theater’s managing director, Edgar Dobie.

Along with numerous B.O. records, the production garnered four Helen Hayes awards including for resident musical. Dobie says even before the show closed, Arena began laying plans to bring it back from July 8 through Oct. 2 with the same actors, and Chapin believes a future transfer to New York is possible, although no theater has yet committed.

Regardless, the casting of the production and the diversity of its appeal seem to rep a model that could be followed by other theaters looking to stage an old chestnut with a new twist. Meanwhile, a growing list of theaters might want to copy Woolly’s marketing playbook with their own upcoming productions of “Clybourne”: Bookings for the 2011-12 season include Seattle Rep, the Arden in Philadelphia, Rhode Island’s Trinity Rep, Chicago’s Steppenwolf and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.

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