Getting down to work: expanding audiences with Donna Walker-Kuhne


Did any of us really think there was an easy way to bring new audiences into our theatres? Donna Walker Kuhne reaffirmed in her workshops on September 27th and 28th that there are no shortcuts. Anyone looking to expand their audience has to be completely committed, willing to work hard, and in it for the long term. (Hard lesson #1: Comp tickets do not build audiences or loyalty.)

But the payback from making a genuine organizational commitment is huge, and it’s not just about increased numbers or bums in seats. Donna encouraged us to look for other ways of measuring success: “Did you welcome people into your theatre as peers and guests, and did they become new friends? Are you building cultural participation and access in your community?”

The right people to do this work, according to Walker-Kuhne, communicate their passion for the art. Her own mother has the right stuff. Given the task on a visit to New York of building senior group sales for The Public Theatre (and which of us has not roped our parents into building group sales?!) her mom pulled out the Yellow Pages and started each cold call with “I’m calling because I’m a senior and I love going to the theatre!”

It’s important to keep expectations realistic. (Hard lesson #2: We’re not changing the quality of people’s lives; we’re creating access to arts experiences.) Donna’s advice is to go to the communities we want to invite into our theatres, listen to what they say, and create a campaign based on what they tell us. She does market research, focus groups, on-line and exit surveys for each of her campaigns, but ultimately believes that every new show offers the opportunity to begin a dialogue and discover new points of entry.

One of the best ways to do this is through the artists. Walker-Kuhne considers the cast and creative team to be partners in the collective goal of making the show a success. She finds out what they’re passionate about when not on stage, and uses these interests to make connections to new groups of attenders. (Hard lesson #3: Artists should take an active role in reaching out to new audiences.)

Amidst a wealth of great ideas, Donna also challenged workshop attenders to create a grand vision for where the arts will be in our city. Can we really work together to “create a culture of going to theatre” in Toronto? Perhaps we can, if everyone – our staff, artists, board, and core audience members – helps us achieve that goal.

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