Shifting the Ground at Geva Theatre Center

It’s important to bring everyone on your team along on your journey when building new relationships and implementing a new engagement structure.

Artists and staff participate together in the season announcement at Geva Theatre Center. Photo: Renée C. Veniskey.
Artists and staff participate together in the season announcement at Geva Theatre Center. Photo: Renée C. Veniskey.

This post is part of a series from Jenni Werner of Geva Theatre Center, as she and her team in the EmcArts Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts program prototype a new approach to complex adaptive challenges they are facing at their organization. This second installment focuses on how Jenni and her team are implementing some of the new thinking they developed after their focused retreat, and where Geva is headed next.

A note from the thick of things

I write today from the middle of our planning process here at Geva, as we prepare to launch into some of the most exciting activities of our prototype project. In my previous post, I talked about defining the people we’d be working with in this phase of our experiment – the patrons and artists between whom we wanted to develop relationships. Now we are laying the foundation for those relationships, which means preparing our staff, our board, our artists and our patrons to approach our interactions in a wholly new way.

Hitting the ground running: Centering our season announcement on the artist

The rubber hit the road almost as soon as we returned home from the Airlie Center – our season announcement was the following week, and even that announcement was a significant departure for Geva. Normally a small affair for a select group of donors, the event this year was much more inclusive, and emphasized the full spectrum of theatre making – from the moment of a playwright’s inspiration to the production and performance of the show here in Rochester. It was a great opportunity to introduce our patrons to the writers whose work they’ll be seeing throughout the season. Actors performed excerpts of both classics and world premieres, writers talked about the inspiration behind their work, and the artistic staff shared some insight behind the selection for each piece.

Building relationships begins with shared experiences

Then we began the hard work of internally shifting language and expectations. We shared with our staff, board and artists the story behind the prototype, and the experiment we’re embarking upon. As we discussed with them our desire to find out the impact of creating opportunities for artists and patrons to develop direct relationships, it became clear that we couldn’t simply share the end, the moral of the story – we needed to take the time to tell the full story, to bring everyone along on our journey. We needed to be clear that this prototype is not intended to be a silver bullet that will solve all of the theatre’s challenges. But we do think it has the potential to change the nature of our interactions both internally and externally. We expect to move from being an institution that sells things (we recently celebrated selling our 4 millionth ticket) to a theatre that offers experiences to learn from each other, and to challenge and inspire each other.

An improvisational engagement structure

Over the summer, we are bringing to Rochester the writers of the five new plays we’re including in our next season. While here, they’ll engage in a series of social activities geared towards their interests, including opportunities to introduce their artistic voices to our patrons and staff and to experience some quintessential Rochester-area venues. We’ve assembled a list of 50 patrons that’s a mix of donors, subscribers, and non-donors, and our focus with these opportunities is on creating personal relationships between the writers and Geva patrons, rather than just typical outreach or fundraising efforts. Maybe we’ll discover that outreach activities should absolutely be included, but we’re going to start this series of visits by trying ideas whose outcomes we can’t predict as well. Because this prototype is about creating space — and acting as a catalyst, not a curator — we’re creating an engagement structure within which we can improvise.

The next time you hear from me, I hope to be able to share what happened with some of these visits, as our writers get to know Geva, our staff, our patrons and our community.

Jenni Werner is in her second season as the literary director/resident dramaturg at Geva Theatre Center. Previously, she was director of programming at Theatre Communications Group, where from 2005-2011 she curated and produced TCG’s annual National Conference. She is an adjunct instructor at SUNY Geneseo, and a guest instructor at other Western New York colleges. Follow her on Twitter at @jenniwerner.