How Blockbusters Funded a Community Engagement Initiative

How Blockbusters Funded a Community Engagement Initiative

Leveraging Blockbusters for a Purpose

Engaging communities. Developing audiences. The arts field of today must be intentional about these practices. At TRG Arts, we’re honored to work with several clients who are making measurable headway engaging new communities, while also keeping a steady eye on the ticketing and fundraising goals that keep their doors open. 

Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta was one such client. We know that engagement work must not be put off until revenue surpluses are attained, or the work may never happen. If you can achieve strong surpluses, however, they can open doors to new investment in that work. Citadel recently found itself in a better financial position to experiment with new audience engagement initiatives because they had already reached their single ticket sales goal for the year—with two productions left in their season. Through maximizing this financial opportunity, Citadel knew they could expand existing plans to position Children of God as a way to connect with the Indigenous Peoples in the theatre company’s community by expanding their traditional audience engagement activities. 

Oji-Cree artist, Corey Payette, wrote and directed Children of God at a time in which Payette was trying to understand more about his family history and while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada was being formed. The musical addresses the historical injustices against Indigenous Peoples of Canada through forced attendance and assimilation of Indigenous children at European boarding schools. 

The original production was developed in collaboration with the English Theatre at the National Arts Centre. Several other theatres across Canada (English Theatre, The Cultch, Western Canada Theatre, and the Citadel) signed on to produce runs of the musical as well. Each one of these theatres thoughtfully created opportunities for audience engagement activities in tandem with the production due to the historical significance and potentially traumatic subject matter of the piece. Urban Ink, the theatre company that produced and supported the creation of Children of God, was instrumental in advocating for each of these theatre companies to have activities and resources for audience members available for each produced run. Through the support and guidance from Urban Ink, the team at the Citadel knew that they wanted to do this as well so that they could enhance social impact of producing Children of God in their community.

Self-funding change: Revenue rigor around high-demand musicals funded critical community engagement

    Citadel Theatre began its partnership with TRG Arts in 2011 and established itself as a team of savvy demand managers. Earlier in the 2017-2018 season, they produced two musicals, the Canadian premiere of Hadestown and the popular musical Mamma Mia!. Both musicals exceeded sales expectations with the aid of a team that leveraged opportunities by:

    • Managing their ticket inventory strategically and knowing when to increase prices based on velocity and price point absorption. 

    • Paying hyper-attention to sales messaging through segmentation of their database to ensure that each patron received their targeted offer at the proper time.

    • Carefully regulating complimentary inventory – for in-demand productions, every seat sold contributes to the bottom line.

    • Investing and aligning their marketing budget appropriately to meet their goals.

    The Citadel relentlessly focused on these best practices resulting in the organization hitting 174% of the Hadestown and 132% of the Mamma Mia! revenue goals. By surpassing their revenue goals by two thirds early in to the season, the Citadel was able to invest in additional audience engagement initiatives for Children of God.

    What they did to make more impact with Children of God

    Children of God is a production that addresses the need for social justice in response to the historical treatment of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. Beginning as early as the 17th century, Canadians of European descent attempted to assimilate Indigenous Peoples into a European culture. In the late 1800’s, they opened boarding schools and forced Indigenous children to attend. Conditions in the schools were poor; issues from sexual and physical assault to malnourishment and lack of medical care were rampant. Children were physically punished for speaking their native language instead of English or French. Death rates were high – as many as half of all children who attended these schools died of tuberculosis in the beginning years. Although most schools were closed during the 1970s, the last school wasn’t closed until 1996.

    Children of God creates healthy dialogue in the country to repair relationships. It’s blending a musical with a social message, which is almost unheard of,” says Ken Davis, director of marketing & communications.

    The Government of Canada is working to address the inequities still facing the Indigenous Peoples of Canada through the creation of the Recognition and Implementation of Rights Framework in full partnership with the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples. In his own words, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: 

    “Reconciliation calls upon us all to confront our past and commit to charting a brighter, more inclusive future. We must acknowledge that centuries of colonial practices have denied the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples. The recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights will chart a new way forward for our Government to work with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples and to undo decades of mistrust, poverty, broken promises, and injustices. We have listened and learned, and we will work together to take concrete action to build a better future and a new relationship.”

    The formation of the Framework by the Government of Canada is an important step forward in that national conversation around Reconciliation. In the community of Alberta, the Citadel took steps to initiate conversations on the local level with the Indigenous community through: 

    • Offering facilitated talk-backs in the theatre following each performance for audience members. 

    • Inviting Indigenous community members to see the production and creating special ticket offers to ensure access to the production for those who wanted to take advantage of the offer.

    • Recognizing that the subject matter might be traumatic for theatre-goers, the Citadel had emotional support workers on-hand at each performance to be a resource to anyone who attended.

    • Announcing prior to the performance that it was acceptable to take a break during the performance if it became too much for an audience member. 

    • Encouraging word-of-mouth attendance by giving $10 off coupons to all patrons after they attended the musical.

    From Plans to Action

    The Citadel recognized that they could be a change agent by creating opportunities for more people to see the production, engage in additional conversations, and potentially gain a better understanding of the importance of this particular story of Indigenous Peoples.

    In addition, Citadel recognized that revenue management “best practices” sometimes get in the way of inclusion efforts: if revenue were everything, discounts would be limited in scope and timeframe. With inclusion in mind, however, Citadel extended a discount throughout the run of the show. With financial goals made for the season, the company prioritized access over revenue to stimulate impact of a new kind. 

    As evidenced by the work that Citadel Theatre has done, arts and cultural organizations can enable complex conversations to happen through their artistic programming. Ken Davis described it well when he said: 

    “Children of God is the beating heart of this – it changes society, it changes the agenda. It helps create healthy dialogue in the country to repair relationships.” 

    For Citadel, they saw this work as a way to initiate a conversation around complex issues and work on building a stronger community because of it. And, having their single ticket revenues goals achieved gave the team at the Citadel even more confidence to build the kind of mission-driven programming that can ultimately building a stronger community and changing society.

    We at TRG Arts can help organizations take their mission further with a focus on sustainable, patron-generated revenue and audience development. For more insight in to our work on audience development, watch our webinar: Audiences Fact vs. Fiction: Data-Informed Audience Development for Guthrie Theater.

    Want to learn more about our audience development work?


    Posted January 23, 2019

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