Tag Archives: audience engagement

The Art of Engagement, Part 4: Cleveland Public Theatre

Over the last month, I’ve enjoyed blogging about one of my favorite topics: Cleveland theatre.  Specifically, highlighting what a few of our local theatres are doing to engage more diverse audiences and help members of the community explore a deeper relationship with the performing arts.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about local enrichment programs along the way and will check some of them out the next time you see a show.  Today I’m happy to conclude the Art of Engagement with Cleveland Public Theatre.

CPT is the ideal setting for audience engagement programs. Founded in 1981, CPT was inspired by Cafe LaMama, an internationally renowned experimental theatre in New York City. For over 30 years, Cleveland Public Theatre has been Cleveland’s leading stage for adventurous new theatre, nationally recognized for its unconventional and ground breaking work.

From productions like Conni’s Avant-Garde Restaurant to their Big Box series, which gives local artists the opportunity to create new work, CPT challenges their audiences to experience theatre as “a site for celebration, a forum for debate, a vessel for exploration.”

To help audiences dig deeper into the labyrinth, Cleveland Public Theatre has introduced a handful of audience engagement programs this season.

After Friday night performances, CPT invites the audience to stay and enjoy a drink on them. However, Free Beer Fridays are about more than just drinking for free.

Artists from the show, such as actors, designers or the director, as well as CPT staff attend Free Beer Fridays to mingle with the audience and have a conversation about what they just saw.  The goal is to make the theatre feel more like a home where questions, thoughts and discussion are always welcome.

CPT is also engaging audiences and helping newer artists through two development programs: the Springboard: Staged Reading Festival and Leap/Conceive.

CPT opened the 2011-2012 season with their first Springboard series. The festival featured staged readings of new scripts by local writers as well as work that was under consideration for future production.

In addition to post-show discussions, comment cards were left on every chair so that if audience members wanted they could anonymously share their feedback on the show.

With Leap/Conceive, audiences got a sneak peek into the creative process as CPT presented showcases of performances in the middle of development.  The artists — all from Northeast Ohio — chose a 10 minute segment of their future production to develop and share. Audience and artists saw the work together, assessed it and offered their reactions.  CPT took a flip/cam around immediately after the show to get people’s reactions on what they had just experienced.

Both of these series not only supported local artists, but also offered audiences a rare opportunity to participate in shaping new work.  The final production will show the fruits of the audience feedback it received during development.

Coming up next for Cleveland Public Theatre is their production of Antebellum which opens this coming Thursday, February 23.

Against the backdrops of a southern American plantation, a German concentration camp, the world premiere of Gone With The Wind and 1930s Berlin cabarets, the love story of two men, one Jewish and the other African-American, bridges time, space and gender and challenges intolerance of race and religion.

In addition to Antebellum, CPT’s upcoming productions of Poor Little Lulu and Akarui were either written by an openly gay playwright or deal with LGBT issues. To further engage the LGBT community and allies during these productions, CPT created goPUBLIC.

On the second Friday of these three productions (March 2, March 16 and June 1), CPT will host their goPUBLIC pre-show happy hour as well as the Free Beer Friday after the performance.  With the production bookended by these opportunities to socialize pre- and post-show, the performance creates a source of insightful conversation.

More information about the goPUBLIC night for Antebellum can be found below:

From social to educational experiences, new to well-established programs, I’ve loved learning about the audience engagement experiences the Cleveland Play House, Near West Theatre, Great Lakes Theater and Cleveland Public Theatre offer.

There are a lot of opportunities (most of them free!) to discover more about the shows you see onstage, meet new people who are similarly interested in the arts and even get involved with the creative process.

Of course, there’s a lot I still need to explore within Cleveland theatre – Dobama, Beck and convergence-continuum are on my list to name just a few.

But that’s what I think is at the heart of audience engagement and its greatest gift: the desire to keep exploring new theatres, shows and the unique approaches each company takes. And at the end of the day, I hope I was able to share a bit of that with you.

Missed parts 1-3 in the Art of Engagement? Here you go:

The Art of Engagement, Part 3: Great Lakes Theater

After I moved to Cleveland, the first theatre company I fell in love with was Great Lakes Theater at PlayhouseSquare’s Hanna Theatre.

Providing a nice complement to Cleveland Play House’s contemporary plays, GLT most often focuses on classic theatre – having its roots in Shakespeare when John Lithgow’s father helped found it 50 years ago.

After taking a slight break last week from the series, I’m happy to return with Part 3 of the Art of Engagement by focusing on Great Lakes Theater’s audience engagement programs.

What initially endeared me to Great Lakes was their emphasis on enhancing the typical theatre-going experience by making it more accessible and social.

The Hanna Theater after Great Lakes Theater's renovations

At GLT, access to its artists and production process starts as soon as you arrive at the theatre – even before the curtain rises.  After helming the renovation of a completely reimagined Hanna Theatre in 2008, Great Lakes Theater instituted an “Arrive Early, Stay Late” program.

Before every performance, the Hanna opens its doors ninety minutes early allowing guests to observe the complete pre-show preparation process of GLT’s actors and technical staff.

Elements traditionally hidden from audiences such as stage combat rehearsals, dance calls, prop/scenic pre-sets, technical cue rehearsals and actor warm-ups are conducted in full view of patrons, offering GLT audiences an unprecedented glimpse into the theatrical process.

And because theatre has always been a social experience, the Hanna stays open after the show so guests can hang out at the in-theatre bar, meet other audience members and discuss the show.

Audiences of GLT's spring productions Romeo & Juliet (pictured), The Mousetrap and Sondheim on Sondheim will have a variety of Experience Enhancement programs to enjoy and enrich their time at the Hanna.

Throughout each production, Great Lakes Theater also offers an Experience Enhancement Series, with a variety of pre and post show programming that highlights the Hanna’s unique amenities and continues GLT’s mission of providing extraordinary access to Great Lakes artists:

  • Salon Thursdays feature an engaging pre-show discussion/presentation beginning one hour before curtain with a Great Lakes Theater artist.
  • Happy Hour Fridays afford audience members the opportunity to gather and socialize at the Hanna’s bar and lounge immediately after work with an assortment of small bites and beverages.
  • Nightcap Night Saturdays are designed to encourage audience members to stay after the evening performance and enjoy entertainment hand-selected by the director of programming for Cleveland’s landmark Nighttown.
  • Ice Cream Social Sundays offer guests the opportunity to enjoy a London theatre tradition for half-price.  Food and drinks are sold and allowed inside of the Hanna for every performance, but on Sundays, ice cream is discounted.
  • Director’s Nights feature lively pre-show discussions with GLT’s Producing Artistic Director, Charles Fee, and the director of each production before preview performances.
  • Playnotes Pre-Show Discussions provide patrons with illuminating introductions to the content and history of each play in GLT’s season presented by a guest scholar before Saturday matinee performances.

In addition to these offerings, GLT will be bringing back its Classics & Conversations Series during its runs of The Mousetrap and Romeo and Juliet this Spring.

On Friday, March 23, “Cleveland’s favorite [mystery] writer” Les Roberts will present a pre-show conversation called “Mysteries Solved” before that evening’s performance of Agatha Christie’s iconic murder mystery.

And on Friday, April 27, prior to R&J, their pre-show discussion “What’s Love Got To do With It?” explores the science behind “attraction.”

Behind many of these programs is Great Lakes Theater’s Audience Engagement Manager Chris Fornadel. Fornadel is responsible not just for coordinating pre- and post-show special events, but also arranging behind-the-scenes tours and working with visitors to create unique experiences based on their requests. He can be contacted here.

Exclusive access to each production's artistic process can be found on GLT's website, blog and social media channels. Pictured here: their Fall production of The Taming of the Shrew.

What happens inside the walls of the Hanna is only half of Great Lakes Theater’s audience enrichment programs.

Before you even visit the theatre, you can experience a lot about a production on the GLT website. GreatLakesTheater.org offers comprehensive background info about each of its productions, including video features, audio clips, cast and production team bios and behind the scenes access to the creative process. Although the information for their Spring Shows will be up soon, you can check out previous productions online such as The Taming of the Shrew.

GLT’s social media channels also offer a number of ways to connect directly with their productions.  On their blog, you can find backstage photos and insight directly from the actors and production crew (sometimes even written by the artists themselves). Audience members can likewise access exclusive information and share their input on Facebook, @GLTFCleveland and their Youtube channel.

Great Lakes Theater is even coming to a Northeast Ohio neighborhood near you with a special audience engagement opportunity:  FREE THEATER!

Every season, GLT presents a free touring production that visits nearly two dozen neighborhood venues throughout northeast Ohio to kick off their annual series of Surround outreach programming. This season, in conjunction with The Mousetrap, the Outreach Tour features a world premiere adaptation by David Hansen of Agatha Christie’s Mysterious Affair at Styles.

Feb. 4 - March 7, catch a free performance of GLT's Outreach Tour Production - The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

The twists and turns of Detective Hercule Poirot’s very first mystery will premiere Feb. 14 and tour until March 7.  The production will reach audiences from Cleveland Heights to Akron, Cuyahoga Falls and Oberlin.   These performances are all open to the public (arrive early since you can’t reserve tickets) and they’re FREE (I can’t emphasize enough how awesome that is)!

It’s a great example of how audience engagement doesn’t need to take place inside of the theatre and emphasizes GLT’s goal for audience accessibility.

If you haven’t experienced Great Lakes Theater yet, this Spring is an excellent time to start. Dates, times and locations for the Outreach Tour can be found here. And check out The Mousetrap, Romeo and Juliet, and Sondheim on Sondheim‘s performance calendars for the full selection of Experience Enhancement programming.


Want to learn about other Cleveland theatres’ audience engagement offerings? Next week is part 4 and the conclusion – a look at Cleveland Public Theatre. In the meantime, read parts 1 and 2 below:

The Art of Engagement, Part 2: Near West Theatre


Today is part 2 in my blog series “The Art of Engagement” (your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you; I slightly changed the name), which takes a look at Cleveland theatres and the different ways they engage their audiences.

If you want to catch up, check out last week’s post which focused on the Cleveland Play House and how their move downtown wasn’t the only change the theatre underwent this season to better reach the Cleveland community.

For part 2, we’re heading to the Gordon Square Arts District for Near West Theatre.

Community engagement is at the heart of Near West Theatre’s philosophy.  In addition to making their shows accessible to the entire community with $8 tickets and post/pre-show talkbacks, Near West has spent the last 30 years building a home where “Ordinary People Create Extraordinary Theatre.”

Although Near West places an emphasis on serving youth, they are an intergenerational theatre with casts and crews that range across all ages, social/economic backgrounds and theatre experience.  By sharing their wide spectrum of backgrounds and experiences with one another, both personal and communal growth happens within the production process, resulting in authentic, passionate theatre for audiences to enjoy.

Last season's production of Willy Wonka

For the audience member who has always wanted to try out the “other side” of the footlights, Near West’s audition nights are unlike other theatres of their calibur, offering a group audition process designed for everyone in the community.

Don’t worry about preparing a monologue or a headshot, as everyone is led through a series of acting, movement and improvisational exercises and taught a song as a group. Although you will eventually need to sing a bit, you can do it as a solo or duet.

The idea behind this is that people often don’t realize their potential to perform or how personally enriching the experience could be. Subsequently, regardless of whether it is honed or raw talent, every individual who auditions for a show is considered of equal value.

Earlier this week, Julie Cajigas from CoolCleveland posted an article on Near West’s upcoming benefit and shared her experiences from attending one of their auditions. Although she originally attended the audition to observe, she was invited to participate and has a great story to share about the transformative audition process that’s open to everyone. Definitely check the article out.

If you don’t want to step on stage (like me), but are still looking for an enriching experience, there are many other volunteer opportunities open to the public.

Those interested in volunteering as a house manager or at the concession-counter can learn what makes a theater tick by hearing pre-show warm-ups, mike checks and all of the craziness that happens before the curtain goes up.  As someone who got hooked on theatre this way, it is an easy commitment that has a lot of benefits.  There are longer-term opportunities, as well, for volunteering on the Production Crew over the course of a show’s run and helping with the set constructions, props and costuming.

Auditions and volunteer opportunities for Near West's next production are coming soon

Near West Theatre’s next production is Ragtime, which will run May 4-20.  And the opportunities to be involved are coming up soon:

Auditions will take place Feb. 28, Feb. 29 and March 1 at 7:30pm each night.  The auditions will take place at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 1349 W. 78th St. Because the characters in this show almost entirely consist of teens and adults, the group auditions are open to those age 16 and older.  The auditions for the three younger roles will be offered at a different time for children.

As with previous productions, the experience is designed especially for someone who’s always admired theater but never auditioned.

Hans Holznagel, Near West’s Chief Operating Officer, shared some advice for first timers: There’s no need to prepare anything. Come dressed for movement and in shoes you can dance in. Be ready and willing to listen, learn about the themes of the show, work with others, and share yourself.

Advanced registration isn’t necessary. Show up on any one of the three evenings and arrive a little early to fill out some information about yourself and your availability (in case you should later be cast!).

Even if you’re not cast you’ll get first-hand experience of improvisational exercises, learn a bit of song and dance, and meet with Artistic Director Bob Navis Jr. and other members of the Near West staff.

Learn more about the auditions for Ragtime and Near West’s two other Spring shows by visiting their auditions experience page.

In addition to auditioning, there are also opportunities to volunteer on the production crew. Pictured is a shot of Near West's Into the Woods set in the middle of the rehersal process.

Backstage volunteers are also needed for Ragtime, including people to specifically help with lighting, sound, set construction, properties, costumes, and on-stage crew. Production crew volunteers are needed at every rehearsal for the last couple of weeks of April and in early May and then at every show in May.

If you want some flexibility or can’t make a huge time commitment (a hurdle I know a lot of us face), house managers, assistant house managers, and volunteers to work concessions, gift shop and ticketing are needed during the run. You can volunteer at just one or multiple performances and only need to show up an hour or so before curtain.

Or (and this is what I’m most excited to learn about) keep an eye out on their website and sign up for their newsletter to learn when the Community Work Day is going to be held (I was told it’ll likely be sometime in March or April). Set building, painting, organizing of costumes and props, and other tasks are done that day. And because you’ll have the help of Near West’s professional production team, no experience is necessary for any of this.

If you want more information or coordinate volunteering, Near West’s Business and Operations Director Carole-Leiblinger-Hedderson can be reached at chedderson@nearwesttheatre.org or 216-961-9750 .

This Saturday's Near West Benefit will help raise funds to continue the theatre's mission of community engagement

Ultimately, the result of all of this is a community and audience that is engaged in a production even months before they see it take the stage.  It’s because they’ve had the unique opportunity to see how a show develops from audition to dress rehersal. And I can share from previous experience that even when all I did was paint a section of set, the connection you feel when sitting in your seat is ten-fold and that’s some of the best audience enrichment you can ask for.

Come back next week for part 3 of the Art of Engagement and a spotlight on Great Lakes Theatre!  In the meantime, if you’re free this Saturday evening, you can still get tickets at the door for Near West’s Consider Yourself One of Us Benefit.  Funds raised through the evening go to support the theatre’s mission of accessibility and engagement.

Many thanks to Hans Holznagel for sharing Near West’s mission with me and discussing their community engagement. All images are courtesy of Near West Theatre.