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How to Boost Community Engagement in Your Theatre Season

A group of people sitting with notebooks on their laps during a community engagement meeting

As educators make strides towards integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion in their programming, it can often be difficult to know where to start and how to quantify success. While many focus on show choices and casting as an engine for change, they often overlook one major asset: the community.

Of course, building a community-engaged theatre season may sound great, but how can you effectively involve all voices while still making it a productive and strategic experience? We spoke to DEI consultant and Theatre Education Conference keynote speaker Bliss Griffin to learn more.

How to Think About Diversity in School Theatre

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the fall of 2023, 33 percent of all public elementary and secondary school students attended schools where 75 percent of total enrollment was students of color.

With estimates that those numbers will increase, a commitment to diversity can quickly impact the types of productions you choose in your theatre program. However, this can also emphasize blind spots in the overall strategy.

“When we think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, most people have pretty amorphous ideas about how to be nice to each other, how to understand other people’s lived experience, and how race and other dimensions of identity can operate as cultural currency,” says Griffin. “And that’s ill-advised at best, because it’s impossible for a person to check themselves all the time. People especially cannot self-monitor for issues beyond their awareness.”

4 Steps for More Community Engagement

Focusing on diversity doesn’t mean avoiding or prioritizing selections to foster inclusivity, but rather focusing on why and how it can affect the community at large.

“When we think about implementing any kind of diversity strategy, we want to shift away from ‘I’m trying to be aware,’ ‘I’m trying to be nice,’ ‘I’m trying to do this socially acceptable thing,’ to discovering what is necessary to the people that are marginalized in your community, and creating business practices and systems of accountability that ensure those needs are met consistently,” Griffin says.

One way to do this is to engage the community throughout the decision-making process and create a season that’s reflective of that diversity.

1. Set Your Institutional Values

Most institutions, especially schools, have a mission statement or set of core values already in place. When planning your theatre season, this can easily become your guide. Do they emphasize community? Integrity? Innovation?

Part of building a community-engaged theatre season is tying your choices to a foundation that’s already been set by the school or administration and can easily be seen in the mission statement and culture of the school. However, if there are none in place, this is a critical first step that starts with:

  • Engaging your administration: Administration plays a pivotal role in any school initiative. Engaging them early can provide direction and ensure that the values you’re establishing align with the larger school objectives. Make your life easier by arranging discussions that can help you understand their vision for the school and the role they see the theatre playing in achieving it.
  • Reflecting on past shows: To move forward, it’s sometimes helpful to look back. What themes or messages did past productions convey? What were the reactions from students, parents, and community? Identifying what worked and what was contentious can provide clues to values that might be relevant and crucial.

2. Understand Your Student Body

While your program’s values can help narrow down the selection, your student body is just as important. Although their skillset and experience can dictate the types of shows you choose from, it’s also critical to recognize their identities and how identity may influence their interactions with the material.

“You have to acknowledge the facts that come along with certain identities,” she says. “There are things that we all associate, good or bad, stereotype or not, with people of a certain body size, with people of a certain skin tone, with people of a certain age or gender… so you have to be aware of which of those things are innocuous, which can we overlook in our student body, and which are relevant facts because they will interact with the script in a way that either counteracts or entrenches social biases and stereotypes.”

When you start narrowing your show selections, take stock of your student body, and ask yourself, “Who have I got here?”

“If my student body is predominantly white,” Griffin says, “it’s maybe a little silly, even though we’re excited, to consider Dreamgirls this year.” While the show doesn’t explicitly address race, it is prominent in the show’s context, so  you need to be aware of race – both broadly and in relation to your students’ lived experience –  as you when it comes to casting. This is true of every socially marginalized identity group: disability, gender, and all the rest.

3. Engage Your Community

Great, you finally have a handful of shows that hit your school’s values and work with the talented students you have. What’s next? This is where the “community” part of your theatre season begins. And open dialogue, emails, and surveys all become your go-to data collection methodology.

The simplest way to start is a call to action for your community. Something like:

We know this is a positive, engaged community, and we want you to help us choose what is right for our students this year. These are our school’s values, this is a list of plays that work for our budget and our values from a high level, and we’d like for you to rank each of these shows and tell us why your preferred show would be especially meaningful to our community this season.

And in terms of who you’re sending it to? Griffin says, “Anybody who feels like they have a stake in it. Anyone who might audition, or support production; anyone who might march into the principal’s office with their opinion on the show.”

The Benefit of Feedback and Data

The idea is to help people understand why shows are being selected, gauge their interest in the pool of options, and outline the reasons why they like specific shows. Not only should they be ranking based on preference, but also on specific elements (choreography, music, etc.) they enjoy, which can be data you rely on next season. The community will also bring up concerns you didn’t think of – again because everyone’s lived experiences are different.

Besides bringing your community into the selection process, this data gathering also helps you find the answers to objections you may get down the line. While most people will already know what options are on the table (because they’ve engaged in the process), chances are there will still be some surprises that you can easily prepare for by pointing back to some of the answers and data you used to make a final selection.

4. Evaluate Your Results

When it comes down to it, the most important part of this process is quantifying how the work impacted the result.

“Typically, when we’re talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’re going to measure success by how much engagement there was and how much belonging people feel, particularly those with any marginalized identity or any intersections of marginalized identities,” Griffin says.

Not only is increased engagement and belonging a byproduct of the process itself, but for many theatre programs, it can help pave the way for taking on more challenging work that start conversations not just among teachers and students, but administrators and the community.      

The Power of Community Engagement

Educators have plenty on their plate, which means taking steps to build a community engaged theatre season can seem like a challenge. The good news is, it doesn’t need to happen all at once – and your focus will depend on the current state of your program.

For some, that may mean spending time with administrators to determine institutional values, while others will need to focus on community outreach strategies to collect data and begin setting the groundwork for open dialogue. More important, it’s an opportunity for theatre educators to get the support they need.

“It’s really, really important that if we’re going to participate in the community-engaged season selection, that the administration is backing theatre teachers,” Griffin says. “The announcement of that show needs to come from the institutions highest leaders along with, ‘We’re excited about this show because it says this about the world. We want our students to explore those topics.’ It must be clear to the whole community that the decision has been made and the ultimate decision maker has said, ‘I’m proud of the thoughtful process our theatre program has leveraged, this year we’re done. I look forward to even greater community participation in our season selection next year.’”

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