Placemaking: the role of theatres in our daily community life

April 5, 2021

Originally published as a LinkedIn article by Gena Buhler.

Spring is here in North America and, thanks to an accelerated vaccine rollout, at Theatre Projects we’re feeling hopeful that returning to our venues and programming is finally in sight. While the desire for people to congregate together again is strong, it’ll take some time to build confidence for many people to feel safe in a crowded public space again. Many audiences have embraced watching streamed content from the comfort of their homes, so we’re now faced with the challenge of reconnecting them to our organizations and venues. In anticipation of when venues can reopen for programming and large capacity events, we’ve been looking how operators can welcome community members back into venues and how those opportunities might be advantageous for the long term.

Giving access to your facility, particularly outside of scheduled events and programming, will be key to this process. For many, doors are only opened when there is an event. Other spaces may be accessible, but use is discouraged, or they seem empty and uninviting. To overcome that, we need to find ways to make our spaces an integral part of the daily life of the community. Think about many of the major headlines that dominated our newsfeeds this past year—our industry was almost always present, offering help and support to their communities:

  • Black Lives Matter protests – venues around the country, including a dozen Off-Broadway spaces opened their lobbies to offer shelter, refreshments, basic services, PPE, and first aid services.
  • America’s vaccination program – in January, twelve national live events organizations wrote to President Biden, proposing that the industry was ready to help in a meaningful way to support the US vaccine distribution effort—drawing on their previous experience of working with federal agencies to convert convention centers and arenas into disaster response centers. Many of these spaces are now hosting mass vaccination clinics.
  • Recent US winter freeze – theatres opened their doors to offer running water, heat, restrooms, and outlets for charging phones and other essential devices

Throughout the year, these venues have been our safe spaces, our shelters, and our community resources. Can these lessons learned help to develop a more meaningful, accessible, and long-lasting connection between the community and your facility?

And, after a year of physical separation, can we really afford not to play a central role in the rebuilding effort to create a new sense of togetherness? We’re presented with an opportunity to not just build back our venues as places of entertainment and culture, but also to rebrand our spaces as accessible and open environments that serve everyone in the community, not just patrons who purchase a ticket for a specific event. Opening our doors to create a place where people can gather, play, talk, learn, and make connections through the day as well as during the programmed evenings would help break down social barriers and lead the way in promoting accessibility, inclusion, and stronger cohesion within our diverse communities. (Pictured above: "Everyone is welcome" sign outside Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington D.C.)

While this would involve some budget, operations and staff training adjustments, the benefits make it worth some serious consideration.

  • Marketing opportunities – by allowing everyone to come into parts of your facility more freely and more often, you can market your venue, organization, and shows to them through digital signage, ambassador volunteers, and box office access.
  • Environmental immersion – imagine friends sharing a coffee and catching-up in your lobby space or café, surrounded by the buzz of event set-up, and in full view of marketing materials.
  • Venue familiarization – access to restroom facilities that we took for granted pre-COVID is now a great amenity to offer to your community. As people make a point to drop by, they become more comfortable and familiar with your venue and what’s going on inside.
  • Community initiatives – as we transition to more touchless ticketing transactions, ticketing kiosks with volunteer or staff ambassadors in the lobby space can allow you to sell your tickets, as well as supporting others in the community by selling their tickets as well. Technology and open doors allow for ease of access and revenue generation.
  • Revenue and audience development – offering to host regular community group gatherings and events creates positive associations towards your facility, while generating alternative revenue sources.
  • Inexpensive community engagement – for those that had been offering venue tours, bringing back staff and volunteers is an exciting time to restart this program. For those who have shied away from offering facility tours in the past, we urge you to reconsider. It’s a great low-cost way to connect with your community and to show that your facility is a safe and welcoming space.

There’s a balance to be found in all of this. You still need to sell tickets, preserve the integrity of your brand, balance staffing schedules and budget, and ultimately serve your community needs. Each community has different needs and expectations, but in taking a step back to evaluate your organization’s mission and goals, you may just find that increased access to parts of your facility may serve your mission, and ultimately create a longer lasting relationship with your community that will serve you for years to come. How do you build this access into your day-to-day operations, and do you retrain your staff on this expectation of accessibility and access outside of the event schedule?

At Theatre Projects, our team has done this work in facility and operations planning many times—both as venue operators and as consultants—so we understand what’s involved to make accessibility a good experience for your staff and community. Talk to us—we’re genuinely committed to helping our venues reconnect successfully, and we want you to succeed in achieving your mission. So, even if it’s just a simple phone conversation to help steer you in the right direction, we’re here to help. If you want to chat, you can reach me directly at [email protected] or 303 920 7890.

Placemaking: the role of theatres in our daily community life
Credit: Andrew Rugge/Perkins Eastman