“Yes, And…”: Audiences Building a Sustainable Arts Community

At The New Movement in Austin and New Orleans, collaboration thrives, the audience-artist line is blurred, and community is built-in.

Image: Brian Tarney.
At The New Movement, the audience is not separate from the art. Image: Brian Tarney.

In today’s cultural landscape, where online streaming and social networks are king, arts organizations are constantly competing with much cheaper and accessible forms of entertainment. In order to sustain meaningful audience engagement, many arts organizations aim to market themselves as uniquely different, providing a service or experience that movies, television, and other arts experiences do not.

Some of the most intriguing and successful examples I’ve seen of arts organizations making this distinction are groups that create interactive relationships with their audience. Moving beyond a one-way form of communication (where the artist produces their work, which the audience experiences, and then goes home), these innovative arts and culture organizations are creating experiences where communication goes both ways, and where the line between audience and artist blurs.

When the audience says, “Yes,” the arts organization says, “and…”

One of the main tenets of improv comedy is “Yes, and…”: the idea that when you are presented with a scenario or offer from your scene partner, you must affirm it and add on to it. The New Movement (TNM) is an improv, sketch, and stand-up comedy collective with satellite theater venues in Austin and New Orleans that lives by the “Yes, and…” rule — not just onstage, but also in its structure and management.

To learn more, I connected with Tami Nelson, co-founder of TNM with Chris Trew. “The improv venues we saw [in Austin] felt very stale,” said Nelson. Both comedians wanted to start something that was completely different from the traditional structure of improv venues, which often serves as a platform for actors and comedians to move onto higher paying film and TV gigs, as is the case in improv hubs like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.

They wanted to create a space for people to be creative, non-competitive, and most importantly, part of a community. Nelson says, “The pressure of wanting to be successful feels really counterproductive for what we are trying to do. We find our students getting better faster because there is trust.” This mentality provides a continuous stream of audience members, who later turn into collaborators and comedians at TNM.

Arts center as the neighborhood hangout

TNMLogoTNM offers a full schedule of improv and sketch classes, live shows Wednesday through Sunday, a regular stream of online material, frequent tours, and hosts festivals that attract comedians and improv troupes from all over the country. Nelson and Trew have fostered a safe creative space where people from all walks of life — artists, lawyers, waiters, veterinary assistants, teachers, you name it — can take weekly classes and become a part of a tight-knit creative community within a year. Any student or alum has access to regular rehearsal space, an unlimited talent pool to collaborate with, and opportunities to perform in weekly comedy shows.

Students and alumni are allowed free access to almost all shows, making them the foundation of TNM’s audience base and its main source for attracting new audiences. New Level 1 improv students often share that they started taking classes because their friend or co-worker wouldn’t stop talking about how much fun they were having. Trew compares the vibe of the theatre to the neighborhood record store or community center where all the kids hang after school. “It’s the clubhouse with all the art supplies to make things. Our business model is to treat people the way you want to be treated, and anyone who wants to put in the work gets to play with all the toys.”

Environment of joy as the key to sustainability

TNM is known in New Orleans not just as a place that produces shows, but a community or social club that any audience member can be a part of. This opens TNM to a continuous flow of new audience members and participants, revenue, and social capital to increase the sustainability of the organization. Though this was not the primary intention, Nelson says it has become a byproduct of a larger desire to “create a space for people to come into themselves, to learn and grow and find their own voice, to do what they want to do, and be a badass.”

This mentality is what fuels the community to get things done; from box office to tech booth, TNM students and alumni commit to managing the theatre simply because it is a fun place to be. Creating an environment of joy, where relationships and collaboration can thrive, has turned out to be the key to TNM’s sustainability.

Audience members can often feel a lack of connection to the artist presenting the work they are seeing. The stage or spotlight can easily divide people from those that watch and those that create. TNM has fostered a mentality that everyone is an artist, everyone can create, and everyone’s voice should be heard. The audience is not separate from the art at all; they become the funder, producer, audience member, and the performer.

Learn more about instances where the audience collaborates with an arts organization’s creators or curators. Watch the Co-Creating with the Public Talks from the National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture.

Francesca McKenzie is a theater maker, educator, yoga teacher, and community organizer based in New Orleans. She is a company member of Cripple Creek Theater, an ensemble that produces socially and politically relevant plays to spark positive social action. She has worked with numerous theater companies in New Orleans such as Goat in the Road Productions, Southern Rep, and The NOLA Project. She is also a theater arts integration teacher through Kid SmART at several New Orleans Charter Public Schools. Follow her on Twitter @CheskaMcKenzie.