Monday, October 26, 2009

Trying to be Inclusive

Posted by Bruce Miller
It was about six years ago that the Barksdale Board of Trustees devised its five-year accessibility plan. The overriding goal was to increase attendance and impact by proactively opening the theatre’s doors, hearts and minds to segments of the Central Virginia population that were under-represented in the Barksdale audience.

We’ve always called it a lower-case accessibility plan, rather than an Accessibility Plan, because we knew it would be devilishly hard to achieve success. Long-standing attendance (and non-attendance) patterns are hard to change. We didn’t want to make a huge deal about it, and run the risk of seeming failure. We think of these efforts as a process, a mind-set, a work in progress.

When it comes to accessibility, there is no such thing as “mission accomplished.”

But I'm proud of us. We've taken the task seriously. We’ve worked hard and systematically. Now that the first five-year plan has been implemented, it’s a good time to take a glance backwards and see what, if anything, has been accomplished.

Our goal for year one was to become more attractive to younger audiences. When I say “younger,” I mean anyone under the median age of the American regional theatre audience, which I'm told is 55.

Beginning with the 05-06 Season, we made a commitment to ourselves that at least two of the five shows in our Signature Season at Willow Lawn would be important NEW plays or musicals—fresh and exciting work written within the previous five years.

Our track record reads like this:
05-06 – Syringa Tree, The Full Monty
06-07 – Brooklyn Boy, Intimate Apparel
07-08 – Doubt, The Little Dog Laughed
08-09 – The Clean House, Well
09-10 – Boleros for the Disenchanted, Putnam County Spelling Bee

Has it worked? I have no scientific evidence; we don’t ask people their age when we greet them at the top of the stairs. But judging from the audiences we’ve observed, we answer with a hopeful YES!

We still tend to attract the smart set, and that's the way we like it. But it’s hard to find an evening audience these days when at least a quarter of the crowd doesn’t appear to be younger than me. And as the run progresses, the audience becomes even more youthful. We’re feeling good, and we will be continuing our commitment to new work.

In 06-07 we extended our commitment to African American artists and audiences. Including shows that relate specifically to African American experience (marked with an asterisk*) and shows that included African American actors in non-traditional roles, our track record looks like this:

06-07 – Intimate Apparel*, Mame, Into the Woods
07-08 – Member of the Wedding*, Guys and Dolls
08-09 – Children of a Lesser God, Well* (sorta), Thoroughly Modern Millie
09-10 – Putnam County Spelling Bee, Black Nativity*, Grapes of Wrath, Crowns*

(Black Nativity and Crowns are co-produced with the African American Repertory Theatre and will be produced at the new Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage.)

Has it worked? Again, we think so. I don’t want to overstate our progress, but less frequently these days will you find an all white audience at Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn, particularly in the evenings. We still have considerable work to do on this front, but we’re moving in the right direction.

In 07-08 we began seriously to address issues of economic accessibility. We expanded our $15/$20 rush ticket program to include all ticket buyers, and we introduced our $10 U-Tkts for university and high school students. These discount programs have grown considerably each year, as more lower income Richmond residents learn that Barksdale Theatre is one of the best values (and cheapest tickets) in town.

In 08-09 we launched our efforts to welcome deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences into our theatre. We upgraded our infrared hearing systems, we produced Children of a Lesser God, and we began offering ASL sign interpreted performances for every production. We are now in year two of this initiative, and despite several bumps in the road, we regularly attract to each production 20 to 30 patrons who specifically ask for the infrared devises and/or visual access to the ASL interpreters. Clear progress.

In the current season, 09-10, we began our Hispanic Theatre Project, produced in association with the Latin Ballet. Boleros for the Disenchanted was very well received by all audiences, and attracted upwards of 60 new Latino families who had not previously appeared on Barksdale’s box office records.

Let me explain. Here again the evidence is anecdotal, not scientific. Throughout the run, I've been talking with our box office staff, house staff, and Ana Inez King, who worked directly with the audience during almost every intermission. Their best guesses indicate that we welcomed to the show 97 couples and/or parties that appeared to be of Latino heritage. And we added about 60 names and addresses to our mailing list representing those 97 parties. (Try as we might, we frequently fail to obtain contact information from walk-ups, rush ticket buyers, individual couples in larger groups etc.)

In an upcoming blog post, I’ll talk specifically about the various efforts we made to connect with Central Virginia’s Latino community, and discuss what our next steps in this historic project will be.

Till then, I hope to see you at the final week of Souvenir. It’s a wonderful show, and closes after this weekend's performances at Hanover Tavern. It's an elegant and fun little comedy with music, and audiences are LOVING IT!

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

what actors are in bootleg shakespeare?

Bruce Miller said...

I know Jacquie O'Connor is playing the Apothocary. That's all I know. This is a Henley Street production. All Barksdale is doing is helping out by lending the theatre and a little bit of staff time. All the donations collected when they pass the hat will go to Henley Street Theatre.

Jacquie O. said...

There is a cast list on the Henley website (scroll down to see all the names.) You will however only see the names - not who is playing what role. We are hoping this is part of the fun!

Anonymous said...

While I fully support the spirit of collaboration and bleieve it to be a fantastic idea in hard times, I have to ask - if all Barksdale is doing is providing space and a little staff time, how is it truly a "collaborative" piece with Henley Street, if they're doing 90% of the work to put it together? I'm simply curious - this is not meant as a jibe or rude comment. But it doesn't seem collaborative to me.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to see this!
Such a terrific idea!

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Is providing space (which can otherwise be exorbitantly expensive and staff-who must also be compensated for their time) such a small thing?

Two companies working together (each providing something needed to make it happen) to bring something to audiences. Definition of collaboration = to work together. How is that not friggin' sweet!

Jacquie O. said...

Hi Anon. I wanted to address your question about the collaboration between Barksdale and Henley on this production of Romeo & Juliet. This is not a co-production (like Barksdale is doing with the Latin Ballet and AART this year), and we were very careful not to market it as such. You will see that it says on both the Henley and Barksdale websites that this is an “association.” While Barksdale is not helping produce the show, they are in fact donating many hours of their staff time and the space for free. Bruce Miller and Phil Whiteway have gone above and beyond in their support of other companies in Richmond and I for one am so grateful. And they are about to do it again by donating the black box space at the Empire Theatre to the Richmond Triangle Players for their holiday show this year. I have said this many times over the years but it bears repeating – I feel so blessed to work in a town where the Richmond Theatre Community goes above and beyond to support each other. And Bruce and Phil are certainly leading in that effort.
Jacquie O'Connor
Managining Director
Henley Street Theatre Company