Meeting and Mingling: An Experiment in Audience Engagement

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.

Abraham Lincoln, in his Fake 2014 Address to the Internet.

On February 8, the Ford’s Thatre Society facilitated an experimental post-performance gathering for the musical Violet. The aim was to encourage conversation among our audience members, artists and staff: In no way a new concept, but a challenge currently in the forefront of the minds of theatre practitioners.

Erin Driscoll as Violet with Kevin McAllister and James Gardiner in the Ford’s Theatre production of the musical “Violet,” directed by Jeff Calhoun. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

As Joy Meads of Los Angeles’s Center Theatre Group noted at TCG’s Audience (R)Evolution conference last year, if theatre is a passive art form, there’s no way we can compete with all the great stuff on television. When even the biggest theatre has a minimal fraction of Downton Abbey’s production budget and lacks Maggie Smith spouting witticisms, what is going to make someone leave their comfy pajamas and watch theatre? There isn’t yet a proven answer, but many of us have theories we’re excited about playing with.

Marcus Kyd of Taffety Punk Theatre Company recently noted that, when we go to a concert, we can get a drink after the show and talk about what we saw. Many would love to be able to do the same after watching a piece of theatre, but so often we’re kicked out of the lobby the moment the show ends. So we go home, missing an opportunity to make meaning out of this experience. There’s currently a strong drive within the industry to invert this conventional model:

To this one:

Ford’s Theatre has had some success with special panel discussions and talk-backs. While these are always interesting, they are either a one- or two-way conversation. We wanted to see what would happen if time and space were provided for audiences to talk to us, to each other, to the bartender or to whoever about what they just saw.

Interior photo of Ford's Theatre by Maxwell MacKenzie.

Working in a historic site (that also serves to honor the legacy of a president), we face certain logistical challenges. One is that American theatre architecture of the 1860s was not conducive to the modern notion of “hanging out.” In the first days of Ford’s, you could take peanuts to your balcony seat and munch loudly throughout the performance. There wasn’t a need to make the theatre lobby inviting when there was already a raucous party in the upper balcony. In fact, Harry Ford arranged regular visits by Metropolitan Police officers in attempt to keep the theatre’s Family Circle family-friendly. And though other theatres added a bar to their lobbies for the extra revenue, Ford refused, in hopes of keeping disreputable elements common in neighboring theatres out.

Erin Driscoll as Violet and Kevin McAllister as Flick (with James Gardiner in background) in the Ford’s Theatre production of the musical “Violet,” directed by Jeff Calhoun. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

With this in mind, and in the name of audience engagement, Ford’s made plans to host an informal gathering in the bar of the nearby Bistro D’Oc after a show. We invited the actors to talk to people in an unstructured way, and we set up prompts to foster thematically linked discussions. We had questions and Post-Its on the wall, and set up a game of “Jenga for Your Thoughts,” wherein we had written open-ended prompts about Violet onto Jenga pieces and invited people to play.

This after-party was a simple idea, but it is very much outside the realm of what Ford’s has done previously. On the night of the event, we went to the Bistro, set up our Jenga pieces and prayed to the theatre gods that anyone would arrive.

9:50 p.m.: Three people came in… looking for the bathroom. We were doomed!
9:51 p.m.: Two people showed up for post-show festivities. Hooray! We would shower them with affection!
9:52 p.m.: ALL THE PEOPLE. In the world. Up the stairs and to the bar. Okay, not all the people in the world, but just under 20 percent of the house, which was the exact number that could fit in that space without anyone having a panic attack. 
The Ford’s Theatre production of the musical “Violet,” directed by Jeff Calhoun. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

We didn’t really know what to expect from this crowd. Violet is a thought-provoking and somewhat controversial piece of musical theatre, and a lot of us feel a strong need to talk about the show. It seemed that the crowd at this event was made up of people who wanted to process what they’d seen, those who wished to talk to the actors about their work or just wanted autographs, and those who intended to have dinner and/or drinks with their friends after the show. There also was an evenly distributed diversity in age, which was lovely.

We now have some ideas on how to improve this style of function for the future, but this event was an unqualified success. We are already scheming about The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and we hope you’ll join us.

Kate Langsdorf is former Ford's Theatre Education staff member.