People’s Light & Theatre: Nurturing Generations of Theatregoers
The People’s Light & Theatre Company is a 37-year-old professional theater in Chester County, Pennsylvania that includes an active arts education program that works with young people.
The project had two components: (1) A Subscription Teen Engagement Program (STEP) in which teens purchased discounted 2010-2011 season tickets and participated in monthly activities to connect them to the plays that they were seeing as well as create their own plays; and (2) Project Discovery Alumni Circle, which sought to reconnect to adults who had seen plays at People’s Light through the theater’s program that brings high school students to attend plays.
Through this project, People’s Light hoped to nurture the next generation of arts goers as well as re-engage adults who had attended the theater as teens, said Jane Moss, director of development at People’s Light & Theatre Company.
Key Research Into Action Findings Used by People’s Light & Theatre Company
- Fixing the leaky bucket. There is a major opportunity to increase engagement simply by increasing our retention rate.
- Social connection is a benefit. Arts organizations have an enormous opportunity to increase cultural engagement simply by facilitating social connection.
For the teen STEP program in the summer of 2010, 31 students participated in a four-week Summerstage program in which they created a piece, “Down Swoops a Blackbird” in response to the theater’s upcoming production, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Some 30 students then enrolled in the STEP 2010-2011 teen subscription program in which they subscribe as a group to People’s Light season of eight productions (of this group, 16 had participated in earlier Summerstage programs). Teens paid $105 for an 8-play subscription, workshops and scripts (subscriptions are normally $232). Six students were on full or partial scholarships.
Students read the script in advance and then, on a Sunday afternoon, participated as a group in a two-hour workshop in which they explored the play through speaking with actors, discussing its plot and themes and engaging in improvisation exercises, among other activities. The teens attended the plays as a group on a Thursday evening and stayed afterward for a talkback with the actors. Some teens followed up by blogging about their experiences.
In the Summerstage program of 2011, 20 students read and explored John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” and then created their own piece of theater in response.
On a Sunday evening, about 30 teens sit in a circle in a large room of the People’s Light & Theatre complex, discussing the play Kidnapped!, an adaption of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. The play’s director, Samantha Bellomo, leads the group in a discussion about the play’s themes, such as friendship. The teenagers appear engaged but they really perk up when one of the lead actors in the play, Luigi Sottile, comes in to speak with them. The young adults pepper him with questions. How did he prepare for his role? How did he learn his Scottish accent? What advice does he have for people who hope to be actors or directors?
Then, Bellomo tells them they are going to do improvisation exercises to better connect with the play. For the next several minutes, several teens rotate in and out of improvisation exercises based on the play with Sottile as their partner. Some students are so star struck that they are hard pressed to participate. But others leap at the chance to create a scene with a professional actor. In every case, Sottile gently and artfully builds off the teens’ ideas for scenes and helps bring them to life. As the workshop comes to a close, the teens linger behind, chatting with one another, laughing and saying they will text each other soon.
People’s Light also sought to re-connect to people who had attended plays in high school from 1987 to 2009 through its longtime Arts Discovery program. To do so, theater staff contacted local high schools and ran advertisements solely on social media websites: classmates.com and Facebook. The ad asked viewers to fill out a survey for which they would receive two free tickets to a production at People’s Light. In addition to the information gleaned from the surveys, staff conducted two focus groups of survey participants to delve further into alumni impressions of the program and its impact.
- Some 55 teens participated in one or more of the STEP programs, which provided them with multiple-week programs to deeply engage in the theater’s plays with their peers. Theater staff said they see this project as a long-term effort to build audiences for the future.
“We do feel like there is this ripple effect of their involvement in the theater and a deeper role they will be taking,” Moss said. “Another piece of the Research Into Action study noted that teens are at a critical point in their lives. By engaging with them you are developing an audience that will be there with you forever.”
- Some 564 alumni of the Arts Discovery High School program completed a survey about their experience (the project’s goal was 750 surveys). Among the findings were 50 percent of respondents remembered the names of plays they saw at People’s Light and 74 percent believed that attending plays at People’s Light in high school influenced their overall cultural attendance. One survey participant commented:
“As much as I did not want to enjoy the plays in high school I couldn't help but like them. If it wasn't for People’s Light I would have no interest in theater.”
Some 105 households redeemed vouchers for 235 tickets (about 10-15 households purchased additional tickets.)
The main challenge of the project was to reach alumni, especially through the avenue of high schools and classmates.com. As a result, staff decided to focus their efforts on locating alums through Facebook ads exclusively. The STEP program initially sought to attract 60-80 teens but staff said that the smaller number of 35 was probably better for group cohesion. The blog was not as active as staff had hoped, especially during the teen subscription program.
- Give teens the chance to create art, not just see it. People’s Light staff learned that the students who signed up for their STEP programs saw themselves as artists as well as audience members. They wanted to create work as well as being immersed in it as observers. People’s Light communicated to the teens as artists and gave them multiple opportunities to create their art through short plays, improvisation exercises and blogging.
- Help teens relate to plays through their own experiences, rather than ask them to dissect the character, plot and structure of a script. In its pilot year of the STEP program (before the Engage 2020 funding), workshops focused on teens analyzing scripts but that approach did not engage them nearly as much as when they were asked to look for themes and relate those to their own experiences.
“The more connections you make with someone’s life as a teenager, the more engaged they’re going to be,” Moss said.
- Hold programs for teens on one night of the week, rather than two, to make it easy for them to participate. It was sometimes difficult for teens to coordinate their schedules, and their rides, to get to People’s Light twice in one week. In the current STEP program, People’s Light holds the workshop and play attendance on the same night, with dinner included, to make it easy for teens to participate and add a social element.
- Give parents a chance to participate. Parents are eager to engage with their teens. People’s Light created a parent liaison for the summer program who checked in with the director at the end of each day and synthesized material into a parent’s blog that all parents could access. That way parents could participate without intruding on the student blog. It also gave parents a way to understand the project and discuss it with their teens.
People’s Light is continuing the teen STEP program for the 2011-2012 season with support from an area benefactor and others. Some 36 students are enrolled. The theater is also creating a Teen Ambassador program in which teens will be advocates for People’s Light at their high schools. In addition, the theater is creating more structured internships for teens than they have in the past in order to help them gain experience in the arts by working in several departments at People’s Light. The theater plans to continue to interact with the alumni who responded to its survey with the goal of encouraging them to become season ticket subscribers.
Director of Development
610-647-1900, ext. 102