This post is part of the Customer, Client, Collaborator Series in conjunction with Doug Borwick and ArtsEngaged on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Engaging Matters.)
I serve as a theater director, producer, writer, and, in the past, actor. My artistic collaborators and I vigorously pursue artistic excellence every day. Often, community engagement and artistic excellence are framed in opposition to one another. For me, it is the very pursuit of artistic excellence that drives my self-interest to develop and deepen relationships with current stakeholders and new communities.
A play or musical, regardless of when or where it is set, also lives in relationship with the time and place it is being produced and thus community engagement is essential to artistic excellence.
Consensus Organizing for Theater (CO)
I practice an artistic methodology called Consensus Organizing for Theater (CO)*, through which an arts organization deliberately builds stake in multiple pockets of communities and those communities deliberately build stake back in the art or organization by surfacing and organizing around mutual self-interest.
At Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company, a small, Equity theater company I had founded in San Diego in 2004 and where I developed CO, the results of this methodology included artistic awards, sold out runs, new donors and board members, and a diversification of our overall audience from 5% African American to 21%, 4% Latino to 29%, and 6% Asian American to 17.3%. In addition, we achieved, over the decade, 93% overall capacity.
When I scaled this process up to The Pasadena Playhouse, where I served as associate artistic director, in two years from 2014-2016, the artistic department engaged over 6,500 new audience members through robust partnerships with 70 organizations or college classes, who purchased over $202,000 in tickets. 19% of these organizations or classes returned multiple times to The Pasadena Playhouse in those two years. In addition, the methodology helped to leverage over two million in multi-year grants from The James Irvine Foundation, The Wallace Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts to build new audiences among the Latino, Asian American and African American communities of the region.
Consensus Organizing for Theater is adapted from a type of community organizing that was created by Mike Eicher and traditionally used for community development and urban renewal. Mike wrote the book Consensus Organizing: Building Communities of Mutual Self-Interest.
I adapted Mike’s process to the theater production process and identified six components to the CO:
- Play or project selection
- Internal consensus organizing
- External consensus organizing
- Taking care and providing tools
- Continuing the relationship
These components aren’t always linear. In fact, an artist often bounces back and forth between internal and external organizing and researching and/or one is often doing both internal and external simultaneously.
When practicing CO, the core question is “what is your self-interest?” or “what do you really want?” We ask this question of the director, the institution, and the communities we reach out to.
We explore the dramaturgical needs of the play. Who are the experts we need to speak with in order to learn and direct or produce the play with an eye towards authenticity? We explore if there are any production needs to which a community organization can provide access. If we want the theater packed night after night with robustly diverse audiences, we explore where we find the people and communities who will pack the theater and support the actors on stage. When we find them, we explore their self-interests and whether they have a stake in the play and if so, we organize with them. And we do all this in the name of artistic excellence.
Some of the philosophical underpinnings of CO are:
1) The process begins with the art, its needs and opportunities.
2) The process takes time and labor – we typically begin a 12-18 months before the production takes place.
3) Don’t assume you know the results or what the community wants. You need to arrive at that together.
4) We are not the experts – we might be expert in putting on a play, but we are not necessarily experts on the content and community. Seek the community expertise and invite it into the work.
5) We put ourselves in the audience.
6) We are transparent about our agenda; and we ask whoever we’re meeting with what it is they really want. What are their self-interests?
7) The individual representing the theater must have artistic power at the organization or access to it.
8) This is just one tool, not the tool, for an arts organization.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated many examples and case studies of CO which I am happy to share. This methodology continues to evolve with each project or production and at each organization that chooses to practice it.
If it serves your self-interests, please feel free to reach out to me to talk about CO… I know it will serve my self-interests.
Seema Sueko serves as Deputy Artistic Director at Arena Stage. Prior, she served as Associate Artistic Director at Pasadena Playhouse and Executive Artistic Director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego. Seema pioneered the Consensus Organizing for Theater methodology, created the Green Theater Choices Toolkit, which has been used by theaters and universities on five continents, and is currently engaged in research on the neuroscience of theater. Her directing and acting credits include Arena Stage, Pasadena Playhouse, People’s Light, The Old Globe, San Diego Rep, Yale Rep, 5th Avenue Theatre, Native Voices, Mo`olelo, among others. As a playwright, she received commissions from Mixed Blood Theatre Company and Center Stage. Seema serves on the Diversity Committee of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.