Reaching One Audience Member at a Time

The Huntington Theatre Company is a large LORT theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. When we closed in-person operations on Friday, 13 March, we were a couple of days away from technical rehearsals on a world premiere play. While executive leadership and many staff members were focused on keeping the theatre in healthy shape to reopen, the artistic staff started to do parallel work about how to serve our communities of artists and audiences during the shutdown.

But how would this be possible when the work we normally did as a producing theatre couldn’t happen? The shutdown brought into focus the fact that, while combating feelings of physical isolation had never been explicit in our mission statement, connecting directly and personally to our community had always been a key aspect of our work.

an actor onstage

Bad Dates at the Huntington Theatre Company. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Idea

When considering how live theatre might adapt to a physically distanced world, the most popular solution for theatres has centered on livestreams. Zoom, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and similar platforms have risen to the forefront of keeping theatre alive for audiences. But as the artistic staff at the Huntington met to discuss how we might take part in this process of theatrical adaptation, one key demographic seemed left out: elders in our community, and those who might not have access to the proper equipment for streaming or who couldn’t afford to tune into livestreams.

Literary apprentice Melory Mirashrafi wondered, “How can we provide theatre to those who might have a more difficult time accessing complicated online platforms? I think about my grandmother, who doesn’t own a laptop but talks to all of her grandchildren on the phone every day, sometimes several times a day.”

We thought: Why not call audience members and read them monologues over the phone?

For many people all over the world, their phone is their lifeline to the outside world. While nothing can quite replace the experience of seeing a live show with a friend, sharing a monologue and a conversation could, in part, fulfill both the social and artistic facets of a night at the theatre. By focusing on accessibility and human-to-human interaction, an initiative was born that could allow anyone, regardless of technological capacity or resources, to incorporate some live art into their day.

One key demographic seemed left out: elders in our community, and those who might not have access to the proper equipment for streaming or who couldn’t afford to tune into livestreams.

The Plan

Huntington@Home started making one-on-one, analog, old-school phone calls to our subscribers and audience members on 3 April.

This is how it works: Melory and J. Sebastián Alberdi, our literary associate, combed through previously produced plays at the Huntington for monologues that could stand alone as a full experience. Selections from Our Town were particularly popular, as well as from Romeo and Juliet and several August Wilson plays. We input eight monologues into a shareable document and added contextual intros to them. This became the menu.

Next, we reached out to staff members to see if they’d be interested in either reading monologues or—if they felt uncomfortable performing—simply speaking about their experiences working on shows. As responses from volunteers rolled in, we input them in a Google Sheets document along with how many calls each individual would be willing to make. Our team came to include folks from various departments, like literary and artistic, marketing, scenery painting, ticket sales, and wig/makeup.

In collaboration with the marketing and artistic staff, artist-in-residence Melinda Lopez wrote an email that went out to our subscribers and donors inviting them to sign up for a person-to- person monologue via the phone. The program was next made available to the general public through a sign up on our website. We put the information of those who signed up—phone numbers, good times to call, favorite plays—in the Google Sheets document.

How-To

The process for Huntington@Home is simple. A staff member goes through the spreadsheets and pairs patrons and staff members, scheduling a call at a time that works for both. At this point, the patron is also given the menu of monologues or backstage discussions they can choose to hear on their call. There is no cost to participate.

When one audience member received her call, she shared, “I’m so sorry if I sound scattered, but you’re calling at the perfect time. My brother is very, very sick and in the hospital, and I’m waiting on a call sometime later today to hear how he’s doing, so this really is perfect.”

A sense that the calls served an immediate need was echoed by staff members. “It was lovely to share Juliet’s monologue, and I tried to really paint the images and tell the story as clearly as I could so that it would resonate over the phone,” said Rosalind Bevan, casting and producing apprentice. “It was a nice distraction for me as well from everything that’s going on and a refreshing new way for me to share my love of theatre and Shakespeare with someone else. It made me that much more eager for the next time we all get to be together in the theatre.”

In order to track the pending and completed phone calls, as well as staff and patron sign-ups, we had to create a system that was sustainable and easy to keep up throughout COVID-19 physical distancing. Caley Chase, assistant to the artistic director, and Melory created email and phone-call templates that staff members could use. After the phone calls we invited staff members to report back their experience.

The desire to bond through language and drama transcends the limitations of the moment and is helping us all feel a little less alone with ourselves.

Response

One of our subscribers, who usually attends the Huntington’s productions in a large group, expressed to Rosalind that she had been feeling lonely, especially since she lives in a senior center and is not permitted to even take walks outside of her apartment for fresh air. “But she seemed optimistic,” Rosalind noted, “and joked about coming to the theatre with her friends who have never wanted to buy tickets ahead of time ‘because they’re afraid they’re going to die,’ [which] she said in a very tongue-n-cheek way.”

Individuals have signed themselves up for a call, while others have signed up a family member or friend. We’ve found that our patrons want to listen to the monologue and then also want to talk about how they’re doing. A few on the receiving end have shared their day-to-day activities, how they are passing the time, and what precautions they’ve been taking. Many have also shared their thoughts on our past productions and their eagerness to return to the theatre. One of our calls recently went out to a local theatre critic who shared, “I miss hearing stories so much.”

Conversations have spanned from a quick six-minute check-in to a more in-depth connection. Melinda shared that after one monologue , the patron told her about her time in the Peace Corps, how she met her husband in Africa, and about working in the public school system. “We compared what books we were reading and the precautions we took at the grocery store. We were on the phone almost twenty minutes.”

By making these calls, we have been reminded that one of the great values of theatre is the empathy it trains us for. As Meg O’Brien, director of education, said about the end of her phone call, after reading a selection from A Doll’s House Part 2, “The patron thanked me for being a positive distraction during a stressful time. She loves going to theatre of all kinds, and saw the show at the Huntington and absolutely loved it. She added that she was moved by the play’s depiction of what it means to be a woman in a marriage, and to learn to be alone with yourself.” Learning to be alone with yourself is certainly something we are living through at the moment, and another reflection of the many ways theatre experiences stay with us all long after the lights fade.

Our program continues to grow in popularity. The Huntington is now having conversations with colleagues from other institutions who are interested in replicating the cross-departmental, one-on-one nature of the project. We don’t know if the need for the personalized monologue performances will outlast the quarantine of our theatre, but, for the moment, both staff and community seem to be enjoying the chance to connect in slightly less virtual way than across the Zoom platform. The desire to bond through language and drama transcends the limitations of the moment and is helping us all feel a little less alone with ourselves.

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This makes me so happy! As an organizer, I'd been searching for affirmation about this one-on-one, analog, old-school approach applied to audience development. Did the writing team read anything in particular to inform or inspire this essay?