More than Dinner and a Show: Building Community Engagement

More than Dinner and a Show: Building Community Engagement

Jon Solmundson

Looking at the news clippings which came back from Squisher and Squasher: The Great Bug Hunt, which Country Arts WA toured regionally in October, it’s hard not to notice that the biggest stories were not about the show itself but about community engagement activities around the show.

In particular the Broome Advertiser ran a big, double-page spread of smiling local kids, brush in one hand, proudly presenting their caterpillar creations in the other.

Shire of Broome Venue Coordinator Sarah Dobson says they had a huge response to this caterpillar-making workshop – which she attributes to the school holidays and their decision to make it a free event (which encouraged more ticket sales to the actual show), but the reality is well thought-out Community Engagement activities bring bigger, better audiences – whether it’s school holidays or not.

Amy Sales has a meet and greet with some younger fans after the Broome showing of Squisher and Squisher. Picture by Tegan Yaich

From the all the presenter feedback we received we’ve boiled down the five biggest benefits from Community Engagement activities:

  1. Promotes the show and the venue – Simply, community engagement activities drive ticket sales. An extra event is an extra chance for people to hear about your show: More than that though, it acts as an advertisement for your venue – giving people who don’t normally buy tickets a chance to see what you’ve got on offer.
  2. Gets people comfortable in the venue – Especially for a show like Squisher and Squasher, it’s great to have a way to get kids acclimatised to the venue; making it a better experience for them and the performers on stage when it’s show time. Adults are going to feel like they had a better experience if they stick around and catch up with friends (and maybe even the stars!) after the show.
  3. Reaches outside the show’s immediate audience – One of the great things a show can bring is the chance to learn or experience something new, but not everyone enjoys experiencing things sitting down. Having ‘hands-on’ activities which engage people in a slightly different way can bring in someone who might not normally buy tickets – and if they have a bunch of fun in your Community Engagement activity chances are their opinion of the show might improve as well.
  4. Helps you figure out who’s buying tickets – Selling a show becomes a lot easier when you know who you’re selling it to. The best quality data comes from first hand observations, so by getting out there and running activities you get a really good idea of who just absolutely loves your venue, and who you need to give just a little bit more convincing. Getting in there and mixing it up also helps you plan better Community Engagement activities in future because you hear what people like, what they don’t like, and what they want next time.
  5. Deepens audience connection to the show – If people have attended workshops, or had other opportunities to interact with the performers they feel more welcome at the show, and may even feel like they have become a small part of it. It’s a great way to create a feeling of friendship between the folks on stage and the folks in the audience, which leaves everyone feeling great.

So, how do you come up with a great Community Engagement activity? There are a few great places to start thinking: Can you partner with any local businesses or community groups (who will encourage their regular customers and members to attend)? What themes within the show most inspire your community – and how can you explore those more deeply?

Simon Meiri and Amy Sales have to hold back the tide of adoring fans as they try to climb on the Goldfields Arts Centre stage. Picture by Sarah Dobson

Sarah seeded the ground for Squisher and Squasher‘s arrival a couple weeks earlier by popping a caterpillar crossword in the paper and offering a free family ticket to the show for the first one to return it.

Then, on show night, they set up the venue specifically to engage new audiences.

“We created an exciting atmosphere for those that attended with music and pictures of princesses, bugs and caterpillars around the venue,” she said.

“We sent out a pre-event email to those that had pre-purchased tickets including more information about the show and a step by step instructions on how to make the caterpillars. When everyone arrived they knew what to do and a got straight into it.”

Sarah says the post-event meet and greet went just as successfully, giving the kids in the audience a chance to meet the stars they’d seen on stage, and giving her a chance to have a chat with the kids and parents to get their thoughts.

Broome weren’t the only ones to run a big activity alongside Squisher and Squasher – Cummins Theatre Manager Emma Davis says their community engagement activities gave them the opportunity to meet the community face-to-face, and gave audience members more of a reason to attend.

Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet for the perfect Community Engagement activity, but the good news is you’re in the best position to design one. You’ve got what nobody outside your community has – a real insight into what your audience wants.

Time and again we see that audiences get the most out of shows and activities that they can personally relate to, and if you’re able to figure out what it is locals are interested in or anxious about you’ve got the perfect way to open up a conversation with them. Then all that’s left is to invite them into your theatre.

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