If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s how important community is. Connecting with others in person is a magically valuable thing. This has always been something very special to me because of my background in theatre.

Performing arts practitioners will tell you that the special ingredient is the audience. It’s like there’s an energy transfer. No two performances are ever the same because no two audiences are ever the same.

That connection is magical. In theatre, it’s often called community. I was thinking about this in relation to shifting trends in software communities of all sorts, so I’ve got an allegory for you.

Regional theatres as broad impact cultural communities

Arts groups have been navigating pandemic closures and reopenings. Some organizations folded. Others changed their business model. And some have been not only chugging along but also innovating.

Now, this is not the first time theatres have gone through rapid adjustments to market shifts. But it helps to have an idea of what the landscape was before things like Netflix and streaming.

Regional theatres were thriving entertainment centers focused on serving their geographic community. Many are in mid-market cities, with a handful in larger metros or smaller cities. Regional theatres had an outsized impact by providing a wide range of programming to meet a wide range of tastes.

Broad programming means a mix of dramas, comedies, and musicals across a diverse set of topics. Variety also means a broad audience. And variety hits a sweet spot in a financial model that functions with a mix of programming and a large, diverse audience.

I was lucky enough to work at a theatre that produced a season of plays and a mega-famous new play festival. Producers, artistic directors, casting directors, and agents flocked to Louisville to spot talent. Local audiences saw world premieres before they went to New York. The range of festival talent was also broad. Think of this like seeing cutting-edge talks by industry superstars, plus new perspectives. Festival content was often more avant-garde: site-specific productions, novel use of media, or turning expectations upside down.

Producing an internationally renowned new play festival on top of a full season of plays meant offering even more to the community. It introduced new artists who were diverse in every sense of the world. It meant audiences ranged from season ticket holders with a calendar full of charitable events to folks using a little extra money for a special date night.

In 1999, the Cabin Pressure world premiere brought to the stage ideas about what it means to attend theatre. Anne Bogart and the SITI Company based the play on the Audience Project, following a set of audience members across one production. Audience members observed rehearsals, attended performances, and participated in interviews and post-performance discussions.

Bogart asked the project participants, “Why do you go?” The reasons* varied as much as the group of audience members:

  • Anything can happen.
  • I believe theatre is another way to exist.
  • I go because life is unbearable.
  • I’ve always liked the mystery.
  • My parents gave us a subscription. My wife really likes the theatre, and it’s a planned entertainment.
  • I don’t want to go to the theater and have it be heavy. I don’t want to be transcended into deep thought. I basically want to be entertained. I want to sit there and eat the icing off the cake. But I don’t really want the cake.

*Humana Festival ‘99 the complete plays, edited by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Amy Wegener, 1999, Smith and Kraus.

Cabin pressure references what happens when a plane flies at high altitudes beyond where humans can breathe easily. Airplanes undergo cabin pressurization so you can breathe. The Cabin Pressure play applies this same idea to the actor-audience relationship.

Can you imagine being able to help fulfill all of those things? Within any community, the people who care about it are there for many reasons. It’s what gives them a sense of purpose or fulfillment by belonging. And the value they receive may also vary.

All of these reasons being different is why I love theatre so much. For me, having a broad impact is as important as having focus. In this example, the focus is a theatre community in one city. Broad impact is that community supporting people with different interests and outcomes.

You can’t do everything

Now, let’s be real. You can spread yourself too thin—trying to offer something for everyone.

My MBA capstone project focused on how the theatre I worked for could avoid this. tl;dr there was a super problematic, racist, homophobic, every kind of -ist holiday satire. The audience categorically did not attend other shows. Separately, a “discover” series was dear to artistic values for presenting more cutting-edge fare not often produced at regional theatres. But it was ultimately not financially feasible. I suggested cutting both.

Double down where there’s success. Consider cutting where there’s not. Make smaller bets on things like a late-night series.

Now that was in the before times. Not the before-pandemic times. The before-streaming times—before theatre-going habits broke down in exchange for on-demand entertainment.

Everything’s changed many times since then. The business model further shifted due to a series of unfortunate events. There were missteps after leadership changes. Another leadership change resulted in the mission starting to shift to a narrow social justice focus that alienated audiences who wanted a wider variety of programming. The apprentice program was closed. It’s a lot to adapt through industry rattling change, and this was all before March 2020.

But … you can also go so niche you lose people who care

Post-pandemic, the theatre reopened with even more reduced programming and a further downsized financial model. Funding for the festival dried up.

This corresponded with continued reduced membership: Golden 90s: 18,000+ subscriber base Early 2000s: 10,000+ subscriber base Post-Netflix/Economy blow-up: 8,000+ Pandemic-recovery: 400+ members

Things could change, but it got me thinking about how many season ticket holders opted out. That includes me. Some of it could be that after they dropped the habit of going during the pandemic, they haven’t restarted it. But I’ve also talked to people who miss the variety of programming and large-scale productions.

The larger problem? No one is filling the huge programming gaps left after all the changes. What does that mean for 7,000+ people no longer attending?

Do people just … lose art from their lives?

For me, that’s not an option. Social justice is a worthy cause. My family has been involved in behind-the-scenes civil rights work for three generations. (You all, we’re modest introverts, so protests are not for us—but we’ll cheer you on and admire your signs.) I contributed in my own way while serving on the Courier Journal Editorial Board. But when it comes to theatre, having an impact on a wider audience has always been critical to me. And sweet Hunter S. Thompson, I miss that new play festival more than I can explain.

So I’ve dedicated my volunteer time to serving on the board at another theatre, Stage One Family Theatre, which has maintained a broad mission serving over 60,000 kids locally each year. That includes work to make theatre accessible and open to everyone regardless of their ability to pay. They’re building the next generation of theatregoers.

I’m taking my own kids to see plays at StageOne—like my Dad did when I was little and he served on the board. And I’m encouraging people in my community to directly support whatever arts group speaks to them. If any of this speaks to you, you can donate to StageOne here—or support a broad impact arts org in your community!

What do we lose when a community shrinks?

What can we learn from this as we re-engage in communities in person? As we maintain existing communities or build new ones?

What do we do when a professional community we care about no longer feels relevant?

Yes, you can go too broad. But you can also focus so deeply on what a small group of people says is important that you lose people who care because you’re no longer offering what they need.

When a community shrinks, you lose impact, and you also lose those voices. This can have a spiral effect that encourages even more insular thinking and even infighting. All those people who’ve left lose out on the sense of purpose the community once provided. And that’s what scares me.

What happens to those people who stop engaging and also can’t find programming or training alternatives?

What happens to the health of the wider professional field if no one fills the gaps?

Do people just … stop learning?

Does professional development stop because there are no longer communities that fill that gap?

This is why I’m so grateful for Marketing Profs and B2B Forum returning to in-person. I appreciate their dedication to quality speakers across a wide variety of topics at all learning levels. They even added more opportunities born from testing things virtually during the pandemic.

So many marketing conferences focus on one channel or tactic—to the detriment of polymath marketers. Communities like MarketingProfs made a bet on broad programming focused on B2B marketing. All industries, company sizes, and company types are welcome. Topics up and down the marketing funnel and across the marketing discipline.

At Test Double, this intention is why we’ve spent over a decade sharing what we learn along the way. It’s also why we started offering pair programming activities at conferences and virtually. Our mission is to improve how the world builds software, and that informs how we make an impact.

It’s the sweet spot of community. Focus on a central thing people care about, and also offer a variety of programming and learning opportunities. We also all have our own responsibility: to show up and engage in communities we care about.

What would you miss?

Are there ways you get support from broader communities that you’d miss if they were gone? Programming, training, networking, other stuff? Seriously, I’m curious. Message me at cathy@testdouble.com or connect on LinkedIn.

Cathy Colliver

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Double Agent
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Agent 0080
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Louisville, KY