Plenary Session: Why Free? Why Shakespeare? Why in the Park?
Moderator: Cindy Melby Phaneuf
Stephen Burdman, Toby Leavitt, Jemma Levy, Brian Phillips, Kevin Asselin
Why Free Shakespeare?
Came from more traditional theatre – avg. age was 78, 98% subscribed
Came to free Shakespeare – problems were solved – seeing people together
43rd year of free Shakespeare – underserved rural environments
most populations less than 5,000
majority are working class – ranchers, cowboys, farmers
Communities provide it free – it is the community’s company
Toby – theatre seen as like a playground – for the community, public good
Lots of theatre competition
Reason that I decided we should be free is because most important thing is theatre being accessible to everyone
Still a very segregated community despite being mostly wealthy
Geographically accessible, financially, intellectually – make theatre and story clear enough so that people who think they won’t understand Shakespeare understand Shakespeare
Creating audiences for Shakespeare – 79% under 60 (avg. 31) – the more good Shakespeare is out there, the better it is for all of us
Creating lifelong Shakespeare devotees
Video on NY Classical Theatre
Did not start as solely FSITP
Park tour 8 or 9 years old
Allowed company to keep revenue coming in all year long
Serving a lot of communities that don’t normally come to Mainstage theatre and create future Cincinnati audiences
Started economic and became mission-driven
Toby – did a couple indoor productions for a couple years; for many patrons it was the first theatre ticket they had purchased
25% of audience seeing first professional theatre production
Toby – 5 different settings
Recently, more intention coming into community – not a lot of traditional infrastructure for theatre work
Amphitheatre at McLaren – only used for Jerry Garcia Day
Shakespeare camps first before bringing in Free Shakes at McLaren so we had a base of “ambassadors”
Some people drove 4 hrs from Central Valley, etc. Made time to come to shows.
Intersection of landscape in Montana
Very different landscapes in Montana/Wyoming/etc
Traveling stage – 2 hrs building, 2 hrs performing, 2 hrs tearing down – could be in a town of 17
Can be on top of a mountain, in a park among willow trees, canyon, Missoula campus
Language-based – very literate community (most didn’t have cable till recently)
Cowboy w/ Complete Works – language of Shakespeare relevant to what he did
Population of Montana has been exposed to more Shakespeare than 99% of NYC population
Only cultural outlet – annual event
Using landscape for France and England – used boats to transport audience – gave audience visceral experience of going to war; excitement, fear, concern
Most exciting experience of theatre
University Town – “oh! Shakespeare! I should go to that.”
Thing we struggle with is segregation of upper-class people on one side and lower-class on the other and never the two shall meet
Making introductions to the community
Most important thing we’ve found is to say “we want audience to look at stage and see themselves” – casting is key; as cast has diversified, audience slowly becomes more diversified
Audiences are coming back because it is free
Jemma – one guy at every single performance (including indoor performances)
Toby – When you take tix out of the equation, you need to ask for everything; will not perform in community that does not have “skin in the game” in some way
Kevin – 28% of our budget is covered by sponsorship, 20% fees, other sources come from grants, donations at venues
Jemma – 80% of funding came from individual donations
Having an actor explain that actors need to pay the rent, etc during curtain call, have actors surround
Cindy – Talk to audiences, let them know
Stephen – 60% individual funded, he does the pitch, talks about health insurance
Donations can be split between actors who volunteer to do the basket
Brain – passing the hat is smallest form of funding; mostly large corporations, individual parks pay for each performance
Question: since you are also a ticketed entity, is there a crossover?
Kevin – created a time gap between Free Shakespeare and Ticketed Shakespeare, and ticketed sales went up
Question: More people walk out of free Shakespeare than paid when there is just one free performance – idea that it’s free so it can’t be any good?
Peter – lots of people give it a try, and then it’s not their cup of tea
Kevin – largest investment is in talent; if audience is walking out, then it’s a problem with our staff. If investment is made in talent and effort is made, it has usually worked out to maintain audience
Toby – over time, higher prices will undermine work that we all do
Jemma – maybe issue is that one performance is free
Brian – is there a way to get some other type of investment from the audience? Surveys, are you glad you’re here?
Location – if it’s in a highly trafficked area, people will be curious and come and watch
Question: Surveys – how do you track audience?
Prize is a good option – i.e. partnership with a hotel and audience can win a prize if they fill out survey and let their information be shared with hotel
Question: Text-based donations?
Actually very expensive
Stephen – we don’t ever lose audience – we only gain audience
Question/comment: Companies w/ combination paid and free performances
More bells and whistles puts more value on a production
What if you put a 10% off coupon for paid shows in free program?
Start to utilize where you’re getting your funding from – i.e. getting city council to co-branding survey
If you can, tell free audience what they’re getting is a 40 dollar value