On Recruiting an Audience

Chlo & Co Dance is a Bay Area company comprised of Courtney King and Chloë Zimberg, whose project, Tabled, brings together various artists to discuss endemic issues in the arts. The five-panel series ran from January through September 2020. The fourth panel, Recruiting an Audience: No Matter the Time, Place, or Weather, was held on August 17th via Zoom and featured Bay Area artists/ arts administrators Michelle Mulholland (managing director, Golden Thread Productions), Jennie Scholick (associate director, audience development, San Francisco Ballet), and Duncan Wold (booking manager, PianoFight).

This transcribed and edited version seeks to continue the conversation. Please feel free to get in touch with emmaly@stanceondance.com or chlocodance@gmail.com with your own thoughts on recruiting an audience!

Michelle Mulholland headshot

Michelle Mulholland, Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

Jennie Scholick headshot

Jennie Scholick, Photo by Murray Bognovitz

Duncan Wold headshot

Duncan Wold, Photo by Mark Semegen

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Michelle Mulholland:

Like many theaters, Golden Thread Productions is not having live performances at this moment, but we have finally decided to do some audio plays. One of the things I’m wondering is how our marketing may or may not be effective. Our audience is still engaged; that’s clear from our communication with them and that we’ve still been receiving some financial support. But as we move into a temporarily different work, I’m curious whether our marketing, which has been relatively effective when we have live performances, is still effective with these audio plays.

[Check out Golden Thread Production’s audio plays here!]

Jennie Scholick:

San Francisco Ballet is a very large performing arts nonprofit organization with about a $50 million budget. We have 75 dancers, 100 plus staff, a 45-member orchestra, and, during the season, an extensive crew and house staff at the War Memorial Opera House, where we perform. We do eight programs a year, three of which are story ballets and the rest are mixed repertory. We commission about one to four new works per season. And we’ve done Nutcracker every year for the past 75 years.

My role within the organization is both to deepen our engagement with our existing audience members, as well as to grow and develop new audiences. I confess, I feel a lot more capable in the first part of that description than I do in the second part. Especially with COVID, what does it mean to keep growing our audience when just hanging on to the audience we have is such a challenge?

I have a unique role at San Francisco Ballet. I spend 50 percent of my time working on our adult education programs, and then I spend 50 percent of my time in marketing. I do a lot of our new audience development events and programs, and I work on content as well. My role was created in this hybrid way because audience members who feel comfortable and informed about what they’re seeing are more likely to become committed audience members. My role was to figure out how to make both our 65-year-old eight-series subscriber and our 25-year-old discount ticket buyer feel connected to the organization. And then COVID screws it all up.

Duncan Wold:

My name is Duncan, he/him. I’m from PianoFight in San Francisco and now also Oakland. My role is the booking manager in San Francisco. We have three spaces, and we host plays, comedy, music, and magic shows. We run on the anti-social distancing business model, and that’s just impossible and irresponsible these days. The whole goal of what we’re doing has changed. Our marketing strategies have to change to support those new goals. Now, it’s much more about keeping our community engaged. By presenting digital works through Facebook and YouTube, we’re helping with the production and supporting with promotion. The goal is to keep the people who were coming engaged, so that when we get to the other side of this pandemic, they’ll be ready to come back and support us again. That’s one of the big goals. Another big one is: Don’t lose money! And then the third is trying to innovate formats. There’s the potential for some of the stuff we create during this time to persist and be interesting in and of itself.

When performers do shows with us through our virtual venue, they ask, “When should I start my show?” In the old days, it was an eight o’clock or nine o’clock show because people would come out after dinner. Now, I have no idea when a good time is to start. A show that goes on at five o’clock, people from the East Coast tune in, or a show that goes on at ten o’clock, people from Australia are tuning in. We’ve gotten feedback that people appreciate having performances on while they’re making dinner, which is different than at a PianoFight live performance.

Jennie:

Duncan, you’re talking about live programming? It’s not pre-recorded?

Duncan:

Primarily.

Jennie:

That’s not on our radar. Everything we’re looking at is going to be pre-recorded and then accessible for some predetermined time. Michelle, what’s your approach to that?

Michelle:

Live productions are not possible in the short term for many reasons. It’s not just about the audience; it’s also very much about the artists. It’s not safe.

We gravitated toward audio plays because there was a certain amount of imagination that would take place. The difficult thing is: How do we get the audience to engage? At Golden Thread, the engagement with audience members at performances is a big part of what we do. Is there a way for technology to recreate that around an audio play? For example, I have seen a couple of plays where they have a chat going.

Jennie:

What we did this spring for COVID is mostly release archival streams of past performances for free. The cons of that model are you run out of archives and you run out of money. We are trying to figure out how to monetize that content looking forward, assuming we have to.

The most interesting thing we’ve done is release a seven-minute dance film, Dance of Dreams. It was created by four choreographers over Zoom with six dancers and then filmed separately. We got special permission from the City to go to certain outdoor spaces. All the dancers were in sneakers. What was interesting about it was we weren’t trying to recreate the experience of being in a theater. We were no longer showing something that had been filmed for archival purposes from the back of a theater. It was San Francisco Ballet thinking like a digital media company. I think it’s very accessible, shareable, and short. We are not asking someone to sit in front of a screen for 30 minutes or three hours. This, for me, is the place where we might be able to reach new audiences. Someone might watch that short six-minute film and want to come see us in person when it’s possible, or they might be willing to pay for a slightly longer version of something like it.

[Watch Dance of Dreams here!]

What we’ve found historically is that, if you’re new to ballet, you’re going to buy the Swan Lake ticket, no matter how much I try to tell you that the cool new work is much shorter and you’re going to like it better. If you have never been to the ballet, you’re going to buy Swan Lake first, and it’s going to take three to five years before you buy tickets to something else. If we do enough of this short, interesting, more accessible work, are we going to get a different way of building audiences?

Duncan:

There is new interactivity that exists in these formats. For instance, we work with this group called San Francisco Recovery Theater that did a presentation of David Mamet’s play Race on Zoom. There were four actors in four squares, and they would appear and disappear. We would discourage the audience from jumping up and commenting in a theater, but now they can in this format. I don’t know if it’ll last past this time, but I appreciate the ability to explore.

Michelle:

We do have archival videos, but it’s a bit cost-prohibitive for us because we need to compensate people for showing it. Honestly, I just think we’re not interested in digital. I don’t know if anybody else is surveying their audience to find out what they are interested in. Our audience is not very interested in digital content. Live is really what they’re interested in.

Jennie:

We’ve done a ton. I think we streamed eight to 10 full ballets throughout the spring. For a while, we were doing weekly artist talks. We’ve done a variety of online classes. We churn out a ton of content. For our loyal audience members, it’s been important to keep them in the loop about what our dancers are up to, and that we’ve managed to keep dancers and staff employed and on payroll.

One thing that’s been incredible through all of this is, we work with seven unions, and they’ve all waived a lot of rights temporarily around allowing us to share content. We have a much closer relationship with our artists right now, and the marketing and artistic folks are working closely together in new ways. It’s been exciting to let our dancers and orchestra members do whatever they dream up and then put some of the force of our marketing department behind it.

Duncan:

How have the classes been going? That’s something we haven’t done but I’ve had interest from various artists who we work with.

Jennie:

We’ve been offering ballet class on Zoom from pretty much the beginning. Teachers teach from their living rooms. We charge $10 a class for a one-hour ballet barre and get between 30 and 75 people from around the world consistently. For our audience engagement classes, which are more ballet appreciation classes, we average between 30 and 60 participants, which is similar to an in-person class.

Michelle:

It’s been exciting to reach people around the world. Because we produce plays from and about the Middle East, in some ways we have a deeper national and international presence than we do in the Bay Area. People can access our work now who could not access it before.

Duncan:

We had a piano player who performed every Friday night. We closed for COVID on a Saturday and the following Friday, he asked if he could stream through our Facebook and we said, “Absolutely, yes.” All these people in the chat were saying, “Oh my gosh, it’s just like a normal Friday night.” I identified a real desire for normalcy. We’re trying to connect with people and remind them that things are okay.

Audience Question:

What platforms are you using for virtual shows?

Duncan:

We have tried everything, and they all have their merits. We upload videos both to Facebook and YouTube, and then set them to premier at a specific time. It treats them like live videos. People who are fans of our page will see it come up, and it’ll have the live chat. For stuff that’s either interactive or live and not just one-person streaming, we’ve used this software called Mix from Microsoft. It costs money and needs somebody who’s got a tech brain to use it. The other thing we’ve used for a similar effect is this software called OBS, which is used by people who stream on Twitch. We did a film festival with Glide and they wanted to do a film screening and then a Zoom Q & A with the filmmakers. They needed to have filmed content that went at a high frame rate and then have a live component. They were able to pull that off with OBS. Those are the two most sophisticated software we’ve used.

PianoFight’s digital venue

Jennie:

We’ve mostly been using YouTube and Facebook Premiere. We use Vimeo when we’re hosting on our website. We upload to Vimeo and then embed it on the website, but we are trying to figure out a way to put a paywall up.

Audience Question:

Have you been dealing with issues of accessibility on online platforms? Have you started using subtitles? If so, what are the best platforms specifically for that?

Duncan:

Some platforms like YouTube can do captions live. When it’s a Zoom show, we have an ASL interpreter who’s on with us.

Jennie:

In dance, we don’t have that much talking. When we do shorter clips, we transcribe it and our video person adds subtitles. We haven’t been as good with some of our longer or live interviews.

Michelle:

I’m curious, specifically with an audio play, how best to make this content available in alternative ways.

Audience Question:

What do you do if a music artist doesn’t respond to an inquiry about using their music for online performance?

Duncan:

On all these platforms, if you use something copyrighted, it flags it and takes it down. When we reach out to smaller or more local artists on SoundCloud, we usually hear from them eventually. Generally, if someone doesn’t respond, I wouldn’t use their music.

Jennie:

One of the benefits of working for a large organization is we harass people until they respond. We don’t put anything up that hasn’t been a 100 percent cleared.

Audience Question:

Are you thinking of distanced performance outside?

Michelle:

That was the original plan for our most recent audio play, The Language of Wild Berries, which is about a road trip ostensibly. The original idea was to do it at a drive in. We work with Actors Equity, and they were not giving us as gracious a treatment as they’ve given you, Jennie! They were not ready to issue contracts. They wanted to have a health and safety plan in place, which is understandable. But if they weren’t going to issue contracts, we couldn’t do it. COVID is like a rollercoaster; one minute we’re thinking, “Oh yes, it seems like we can do this safely.” And then, 10 days later, we’re like, “Whoa, this is not going to be doable, it seems more dangerous.”

Duncan:

There are the city guidelines about outdoor dining, but most of the guidelines have pretty much explicitly prohibited any form of entertainment.

Jennie:

Our orchestra has been doing pop-up concerts. They’ve been doing them for a while. It’s strings only at this point, nothing that creates aspiration. They’ve been doing them in a variety of neighborhoods. We share many of our orchestra members with the opera, and they have branded these pop-up performances. We are hoping that a couple of our dancers will elect voluntarily, in sneakers, to maybe pop up with our orchestra here and there. Keep an eye out for those performances happening throughout the city.

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To learn more, visit www.chlocodance.com/tabled.

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