The Art of Engagement, Part 1: Cleveland Play House

Engagement programs, like Cleveland Play House's Gen.NOW series, give audience members unique social experiences while learning more about the shows and theatres in Cleveland. Pictured: Mattie Hawkinson, Rob McClure and Lise Bruneau, part of The Game's Afoot cast, at the Gen.NOW pre-show happy hour.

Considering how much it interests me now, I’m sometimes surprised that it wasn’t until I was about to head off to college that the theatre bug bit me. I had enjoyed seeing plays and musicals as a child and had performed in a couple of shows like a lot of kids with an overactive imagination, but it wasn’t until an experience at the very end of high school that I found how enriching the performing arts can be.

When I was trying to decide on colleges, I spent the weekend at La Salle University with a senior who was involved in their theatre program. She took me on a tour of the theatre before curtain went up on opening night. I met the cast and crew and got to experience the behind-the-scene workings.

It was this experience, and my fascination with how much went on backstage, that started my engagement in the arts – leading me to get involved in productions during college and for a few years after graduation.  And even though I don’t work in theatre anymore, I still look for opportunities to go beyond what I see onstage to learn and further my experience.

When I moved here, I was happy to discover Cleveland’s theatres offer a variety of engagement programs to enrich my experience as an audience member – from learning more about the show’s history to how the production fits within the Cleveland community.

It’s easy to take advantage of these programs — most of which are free. Usually it’s as easy as knowing what each theatre offers and when.

Because I feel these off-stage programs have made my Cleveland theatre-going experiences more fulfilling, I’m going to take a look over the next month at the different ways Cleveland theatres get their audience members engaged.  I hope you find something you like and have a chance to check some of these offerings out.

I’m starting things off with the Cleveland Play House.

CPH’s move downtown this Fall was not the only change America’s first regional theatre made to further engage and enrich audiences during their 2011-2012 season. Last Spring, they hired Corey Atkins for a brand new position – Artistic Associate – Engagement.

As one of only two positions like it in the country, Atkins’ Engagement role is unique because it is not a marketing position, but an artistic one. The purpose is to create new relationships through engagement events and build upon the experience of current audiences through enrichment programs — regardless of whether someone purchases a ticket.

Their new downtown theatres - like the Second Stage pictured here - weren't the only changes CPH made this season to further engage audiences.

When I spoke with Atkins last week, he shared that one of the changes he made right away was to evolve the already-existing pre- and post-show talks into a conversational format — as more of an audience forum than a lecture. Although CPH staff may facilitate the conversation, guests are able — and encouraged — to openly share their opinions and experiences.

I saw this openness first-hand when I attended a pre-show conversation for The Game’s Afoot and we learned detailed history about the Gillette mansion from an audience member who had visited it.

If you can make it to the show early, these half-hour pre-show conversations start 45 minutes before every performance. The post-show discussions take place after the second Tuesday and final three Sunday performances. Both are free with your ticket to the show and allow you to connect with the people that are involved in the production and continue the dialogue that was started on stage.

Also new this season, CPH has introduced comprehensive Play Guides and a Reading Club for further insight into each play.

The play guide for Ten Chimneys, their latest production, features profiles on the real-life theatre legends that the play is based off of, as well as a history of American theatre and an interview with a Case Western Reserve University/CPH Master of Fine Arts student who is in the production. If you’re planning on attending the show, it’s a great read.

For $10, the Cleveland Play House Reading Club provides audience members with a copy of the script and discussion questions four weeks prior to the show. Then when they see the show, audience members can engage in a lively discussion with the artistic staff and other audience members about the production. The best part is that Reading Club members can bring along any family or friends for free to the discussion.

Gen.NOW, night.OUT! and College Night @ CPH are all part of this season's new SHOW+ programming.

In addition to fostering a deeper relationship with their current audiences through these enrichment programs, CPH is also building new audiences by giving the community more reasons to check them out.

Their new SHOW+ programs introduce younger and more diverse audiences to CPH as a social experience. While the show is always the focus, SHOW+ guests get to also enjoy a pre- or post-show party. These happy hour parties feature food and drink where guests can interact with one another and meet the actors and CPH staff, while enjoying a special discounted ticket price.

Just like their move downtown, the SHOW+ program reflects CPH’s dedication to contemporary theatre and contemporary audiences by reaching out to community members that have been absent in the past and are necessary to keep the theatre growing.

For instance, the Gen.NOW and College Night @ CPH programs target young and engaged Clevelanders and college students, respectively — encouraging them to explore downtown restaurants and bars and socialize with one another in a creative, fun atmosphere. Plus, they get to enjoy the show at a price that fits their budget.

The next Gen.NOW and College nights take place April 24 and May 1, respectively, during In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. The discount code for Gen.NOW is “NOW” and college students are able to take advantage of CPH’s student discount.

I am a huge fan of CPH’s third SHOW+ program because it was created to engage with another under-served audience – the LGBT community and friends. night.OUT! focuses on providing a friendly environment for socializing and networking with a happy hour and show costing only $25.

After the success of their first night.OUT!, the Jan. 19th performance for Ten Chimneys is nearly sold out.

The next night.OUT! on Jan. 19th will feature a pre-show party at The Wyndham’s Blue Bar with free appetizers and drink specials, followed by a performance of Ten Chimneys.  CPH will also offer a night.OUT! event on April 19th for In the Next Room (discount code: OUTCPH).

For each of the SHOW+ events, CPH incorporates a creative activity to encourage guests to step out of their comfort zones and meet new people. For instance, during The Game’s Afoot Gen.NOW event, audience members were given a slip with either a Question or Answer on it when they arrived. If they found the matching clue among the other guests, they were entered in a raffle for tickets to a future show.

The growth and success of the SHOW+ events so far have demonstrated the need for programs like this within Cleveland. Individuals and Cleveland young professional groups have helped the Gen.NOW program triple in attendance between The Life of Galileo and The Game’s Afoot. 

Similarly, night.OUT! has been so popular that online tickets for the Ten Chimneys event are sold out. CPH is reserving a block of tickets for the January 19th performance that are available by phone on Jan. 17 only. Details about this special block of tickets are available here.

Ten Chimneys, playing on the brand new Second Stage until Feb. 5, will also feature other community engagement programs, such as a special discussion for University Hospital outpatients and their families with actress Mariette Hartley.

Hartley, who is not just famous for her theatre experience, but also as the former host of the CBS Morning Program and the author of Breaking the Silence, will lead a conversation on emotional and mental health while sharing her own journey and struggles.

Additionally, Ten Chimneys actress Jordan Baker will run a workshop on the business of acting for CSU and Case students – reflecting the play’s theme of balancing an onstage and offstage life.

Events such as these reinforce the notion that plays and artists can make a ripple not just on stage, but within the broader community as well.

CPH staff, crew and cast members are often involved in each show's audience engagement programs. Pictured here: Gail Rastorfer, Mariette Hartley, and Jordan Baker in CPH's current production - Ten Chimneys. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

As they look at the success of this year, CPH is looking ahead to next season’s engagement goals. Building on the success of night.OUT! and Gen.NOW, Atkins hopes to create more ethnically and culturally diverse programs. They also will closely examine how the work that is produced more directly connects with different parts of the city.

The Cleveland Play House is just one great example of how Cleveland theatres are making more of an effort to engage the community and build awareness within the region. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be spotlighting other examples in a series of posts titled “The Art of Engagement”. Next up – Gordon Square Arts District’s Near West Theatre.

Many thanks to Corey Atkins for sitting down with me to discuss Cleveland Play House’s audience engagement programs. All images are courtesy of Cleveland Play House.

7 thoughts on “The Art of Engagement, Part 1: Cleveland Play House

  1. Alicia from Poise in Parma

    I can’t wait to get down to the Allen to check out a CPH show. It’s been far too long since I’ve seen one of their productions and I’m excited to see the renovated space. I’m excited for this series of blog posts – great idea for us theater lovers in town!

  2. Pingback: The Art of Engagement, Part 2: Near West Theatre « Clue Into Cleveland

  3. Pingback: The Art of Engagement, Part 3: Great Lakes Theater « Clue Into Cleveland

  4. Pingback: The Art of Engagement, Part 4: Cleveland Public Theatre « Clue Into Cleveland

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