Last Wednesday, I had the honor of conducting an “Audience Engagement Boot Camp” in Columbus, OH for arts administrators and artists from across the state on behalf of National Arts Marketing Project as a guest of Columbus Arts Marketing Association (CAMA).

Jessica Foust, Trash2Treasure83

Jessica Foust, Trash2Treasure83

From the M words in both of my host’s names, safe bet the attendees would be predominantly marketers. The registration list and a rapid-fire round of live introductions confirmed that a good 70% of the attendees worked in a marketing-related area.

However: in planning calls CAMA’s committee set out goals for the workshop…

  • address the shift in participation culture in the U.S.
  • question whether arts organizations are embracing or fighting this shift
  • establish foundation of understanding for audience engagement
  • provide methods for inclusive planning
  • share tools and resources
  • inspire action

This is the PDF of my slides for that day. If you’ve taken an audience engagement workshop with me before, they probably don’t look radically different. And yet, CAMA’s agenda shifted something inside me. Their titling the workshop a “boot camp” and cheekily calling me a “drill sergeant” in the description allowed that shift to manifest. What good was I doing providing all this information without laying out the hardline truths in the process?

Hardline Truths about Engagement of Audiences in the Arts:

  • We are not caring for the spines of our organizations—the audience, the patrons.
  • We continue to confuse marketing (selling) with engaging (involving).
  • We are not making the audience’s experience with our organization (around the artwork) meaningful, resonant, or relevant.
  • We make or uphold so many rules of conduct, that it prevents creative experimentation and forward progress.
  • We perpetuate status quo (e.g. interpretive collateral materials have to maintain consistent size, shape, layout to “maintain brand identity”) and look at people who challenge it as renegades.

Companies like Nike and Dunkin spend thousands–no, millions–of dollars engaging consumers around their products, and their products are shoes and donuts. We, artists, make products that are themselves high impact experiences. We are experts in making meaningful experiences, and yet we shroud our products, our works of art, in austere identities and formulaic experiences. Our most common excuse is that we don’t have the resources (e.g. money) to try something new. But it should be that we don’t try, or we don’t think we can try.

If I learned anything from my time in Columbus, it was this: now is the time to make a change. Now. People drove from across the state to attend my workshop. They were hungry. They had lots of new ideas. They were pumped. They just needed permission to break rules. They needed to know you could think big first, and then look at how to essentialize your idea to scale. They simply needed to recalibrate. They needed to remember we love the audience. Artist + Art + Audience = Amazing

I was so inspired by conversations I had in Columbus, I came up with these ideas. Take and use ‘em as you wish:

  1. Take the dollars you were going to spend on an advertisement and spend it on something like paying 10 local artists to sit in a crowded coffee shop with tshirts and talk amongst each other in pairs about the plays of the season. People can over hear. The artists should have coasters or stickers which they can casually hand to interested parties. At least you know you are having person-to-person contact.
  2. Don’t pay for a printed program–put it all online. Email it to ticket buyers. Take that money and invest in postcards with pre-paid postage. If people liked the show ask them to take a postcard, write a quick message about the show, and send it to someone local. If that friend calls or orders tickets online, the original audience member gets a personal thank you note and the ticket buyer gets a personal welcome and a free drink. (The postcard should be branded, obviously!)
  3. Put a call out to street artists and buskers in your city. Invite them to experience a preview of your latest exhibit; feed them; engage them in conversation with one another about the work. Ask them if they would, for a small fee, perform something inspired by this exhibit when they are next out. Give them a piece or two of collateral to have on hand. Raise awareness about art on the streets in your city to your audience.


The Wealth of Ensemble

July 18, 2015 — 1 Comment

Adam Smith.
This is where my brain always starts.

Money PieAdam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. One of the seminal philosophical underpinnings of this country. There’s a singular “pie” of resources. It’s finite. We can all only have a single slice of the pie. Only if we work to grow the size of the pie can we get a bigger slice, or if I give some of my slice to you, or if I take yours, etc. In Wealth of Nations Smith is discussing economics, labor, and government…capitalism. So money, yes, but essentially power.

So when considering the struggles around power sharing in an ensemble-based arts organization, my brain always starts with Adam Smith: power tends to be viewed as a pie, we either all have equal slices or … wait a second!!!–your slice is bigger than mine and THAT SUCKS END OF STORY. ARRRGGGHHH!!!!

Which, of course, underscores 1) why the Wealth of Nations comparison is not the best analogy; and 2) why the equality mindset is such an unproductive approach to power sharing.

Power sharing is not about equality¹. We are not all equal. If we were, we would not see how differently White  and Black suspects are treated when in police custody. If we were, we would not need the Supreme Court to grant Same-Sex marriage rights.

We are not all equal in an arts organization. If we were, my resume and your resume would look exaPiectly the same.

But someone having more power does not mean someone else has her power taken away. Power is not shared like pie. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Power sharing is not about placing everyone on the exact same level. It is about acknowledging the experience and expertise each individual has, including oneself, and bringing the fullness of that “power” to the group. Sharing that power.

“Equal” means “same size slice.” But “equal” is not “fair.” It falsely promises ownership, isn’t  just or appropriate, and neither propels us forward nor makes us “better.”

Power sharing is as much about taking agency as much as it is making space for agency to be taken. Invitations made, invitations accepted—both ways. Responsibility is viewed for the collective more than for oneself. This doesn’t erase personal identity, it expands it and allows it to be expanded and affected. In this sense, one is never “solely responsible.”

But it must be shared. When space isn’t made for others, it’s the responsibility of the group to course correct. When agency isn’t taken, it is the responsibility of the group to course correct. Both situations are just as problematic, as they will result in reverting to a size-of-pie mindset and ensuing conflicts.

Does this rid us of job descriptions, to-do lists, systems of accountability, and the like? No, of course not, and please come out of the weeds.  :)

Instead, let’s look at some of a memo Tony Hsieh, CEO for Zappos, wrote to the company in March 2015 regarding their transition to a holacracy management structure:

The right question is not: how can everyone have equal power? It is rather: how can everyone be powerful? ….

Here we stumble upon a beautiful paradox: people can hold different levels of power, and yet everyone can be powerful. If I’m a machine operator―if my background, education, interests, and talents predispose me for such work―my scope of concern will be more limited than yours, if your roles involve coordinating the design of a whole new factory. And yet, if within what matters to me, I can take all necessary actions using the advice process, I have all the power I need.

This paradox cannot be understood with the unspoken metaphor we hold today of organizations as machines. In a machine, a small turn of the big cog at the top can send lots of little cogs spinning. The reverse isn’t true―the little cog at the bottom can try as hard as it pleases, but it has little power to move the bigger cog. The metaphor of nature as a complex, self-organizing system can much better accommodate this paradox. In an ecosystem, interconnected organisms thrive without one holding power over another. A fern or a mushroom can express its full selfhood without ever reaching out as far into the sky as the tree next to which it grows. Through a complex collaboration involving exchanges of nutrients, moisture, and shade, the mushroom, fern, and tree don’t compete but cooperate to grow into the biggest and healthiest version of themselves.

the point is not to make everyone equal; it is to allow all employees to grow into the strongest, healthiest version of themselves. Gone is the dominator hierarchy (the structure where bosses hold power over their subordinates). And precisely for that reason, lots of natural, evolving, overlapping hierarchies can emerge―hierarchies of development, skill, talent, expertise, and recognition…

(emphasis above is mine)

Power sharing in this manner is not what we’re accustomed to in organizations or in American culture at large. Patriarchal hierarchy is deeply ingrained. Working against it leaves us feeling, at first, unbalanced, then uncomfortable, and possibly distressed. It is work that you have to commit to; that you have to believe in.

The “pay-off” I might refer to as the “wealth of ensemble,” and I believe it is worth it in the end.


¹Treading carefully. I don’t want anyone to mistake me: I know there is tremendous inequity and injustice that must be addressed directly and transparently within professional and personal spheres.


May 5, 2015 — Leave a comment

WhyB_500x500_squareI’ve been in a major U.S. city the past four days running auditions for a dog & pony dc show produced by another company. The auditions consisted of three 2-hour open-call “workshops.” After the first two audition/workshops I expressed mild concern over the diversity in the pool thus far (three people of color, everyone was able bodied) despite our stress that the roles were only specific in terms of an age range and gender (and even those could be negotiated a bit). I inquired if my dog & pony dc colleague and I could take some action, maybe go through casting files and call in actors of color at an added audition? We would make ourselves available for whatever it would take.

Long story short: the answer was no. The theatre would tap some people in the area to see if they could nudge communities but we would not be engaging in any acts of “discrimination” in the manner I suggested.

In the meantime, back home in our nation’s capitol, dog & pony dc continues to openly wrestle with (among many other topics) diversity and inclusion. And on day four of my stay in the major U.S. city, after the casting was complete, I had a meeting with a subgroup of ensemble members to work on our homework. The question was raised by one of my colleagues, which has been raised by others before at different times explicitly and in not so many words: “What do we want? Why are ‘we’ having these conversations?”

We discussed some answers, revisiting some ground that had been covered and also going deeper with some of us individually.

But the point of all this…

I awoke just after 3:00 this morning having dreamt of fighting collusion and supremacy in two different languages and battling not only with my enemies, but also with my partners and myself.

“Why” are we having these conversations is no longer a useful question as far as I’m concerned. It’s an evasive one. It’s an excuse.

Because Freddie Gray.
Because Trayvon Martin.
Because Carl Dupree.
Because Matthew Shepard.
Because Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous Six.
Because Catalina Sandino Moreno in Medeas.
Because Daniel Handler at the 2014 National Book Awards.
Because unpaid internships.
Because complicated grant applications.
Because privilege.
Because responsibility.
Because hope.
Because reckless imagining.
Because change and building shit is hard

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, and we sure as hell shouldn’t do it alone.

I don’t “blame” the theatre for not doing more. I “blame” myself for not remembering that I needed to take action months ago with them and without them in order to ensure we had done our thorough due diligence to meet, educate, and welcome. And “we” are having the conversation because “I” am not an independent artist I am an ensemble artist. So I also “blame” the ensemble for not reminding me that we needed to take action months ago with them and without them to meet, educate, and welcome.

I know for sure that we will continue our process of meeting and educating in this major U.S. city, and then, hopefully, allowing the art to ultimately serve as a facilitation for some of these conversations as part of the performance. Because we need to have them.

The GiverIn Lois Lowry’s The Giver, members of a dystopian future society enact an apology ritual around even the slightest error. The wrongdoer states “I apologize for [__brief description of wrong doing__].” The wronged respond, “I accept your apology.” The apology ritual is performed between two individuals, an individual and her family, and even an individual and the entire community.

I listened to the audio book and watched the movie of The Giver within a few months of each other last year, ironically after spending considerable time deprogramming myself from continually saying “sorry.” (Unlike the characters in The Giver however, I was actually taking emotional responsibility for all the little things I was apologizing for—yikes!) My personal distancing from the “s” word and the repeat exposure to The Giver heightened my awareness to the number of colleagues constantly apologizing, directly or indirectly.

My amazingly talented colleague Ivania Stack (yup, another amazing person you should check out) and I adopted the ritual from The Giver in order to playful help all of us recognize we were either dropping the “s” word gratuitously or unnecessarily taking responsibility via an apology: we, and others, now immediately respond back with “I accept your apology.” It gets laughs and knowing nods… and I would like to think it helps. Colbert Apology Accept But let’s touch on the flip side: actually allowing your community to care for you by accepting your apologies. Last night in rehearsal, a question about whether I liked an idea the group was bandying about caught me off guard. Low on sleep, high on stress, amused by the idea but trying to think through how it would manifest in the show, my response was a strange defensive explosion of “why would you think I didn’t like it of course I do come on why are we singling me out what could I possibly be doing that would make you think otherwise!?!?!” I apologized. We moved on. At the break, I apologized directly to the question-asker again and with true sincerity she responded “I accept your apology.”

I SO NEEDED THAT. I'm Sorry It's okI needed her to accept my apology. I needed for her to recognize I made a mistake, and acknowledge she could forgive my actions and move past them. And she needed me to deal promptly, honestly, and directly with the exchange. In fact: the entire group present needed it, all fifteen of us.

This is how healthy communities are created and maintained, be they workplaces, families, or dystopian future societies: open lines of communication, personal responsibility, authenticity of voice, transparency of process. Adopting and enacting ritualistic actions, whether consciously or unconsciously, does not connect us with one another when they are devoid of meaning. Endowing actions with intension, allowing them to carry the appropriate weight, and sharing support with your colleagues—forms powerful bonds between individuals and continually reinforces them over time.

I looked around the interwebs for more on women in particular and over-apologizing. Thought I would share a few of my findings here:

Sorry, Not Sorry--Why Women Need to Stop Apologizing for Everything

I'm Sorry But I'm Not Going to Stop Apologizing

When "I'm Sorry" Is Too Much

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Prologuetriangulations and tetrahedronizations

Blog schedules be darned! This big eyed fish explored a new bowl and so the editorial staff has done a switcheroo.

Who out there noticed?


Ok, maybe this is my way of telling you 1) we plan 2) there’s a “we” 3) this post has a lot going on and it’s possible the dots are not all connected.



This weekend, I was slapped across the face. Literally. In front of my dog & pony dc co-ensemble members and a collection of artistic collaborators. By a man who we invited into our ensemble as part of a training. There are many other details I could share, but let’s open with this simple telling of the story.


Being an ensemble member is hard.

“Team membership” brings with it immense power and responsibility. My guess is many few of us outside of the military and professional/life-practice team athletics truly knows this. In my world we tend to call it “ensemble member” or “ensembleship.” The variation between military or athletics, and ensemble, for us at least, is: the agency we endow individuals within the group; the equity with which we seek to operate and realize; the responsibility we share in manifesting shared vision and values; the trust we place and hold in the collective.

The thing about run-of-the-mill colleagues is that in most situations, they can easily avoid making choices, they can kick-back within hierarchy, they can maintain a narrow focus of impact, and everyone’s actions to superiors are either gestures of obedience, pledges of loyalty, or both.

The thing about run-of-the-mill leaders is that in most situations, they can give and take the semblance of power, they can tip over scales, they can give/ take/ reward/ punish/ spotlight/ ignore behaviors, and everyone else needs to have their trust earned by you.

But in our ensemble at least:

Every member of the company has an impact on the work and processes of every other member.

Membership in the company is a constant exercise in awareness, both of one’s own “orbit” within the company, and awareness of all the others. It requires personal flexibility to balance the work of the whole.


  • Agency can be taken or ignored.
  • Equity can balance despite variance, or it can remain disturbed and partisan.
  • Responsibility can be embraced or shrugged off.
  • Trust can be given and accepted, or withheld.

Reverse to #1 to launch into #3

So I was slapped across the face. Literally. In front of my co-ensemble members and a collection of collaborating artists. By a man who we invited into our ensemble as part of a company training.

Everyone physically remained in the room. I made a joke shortly afterward; transmitting a coded message to the ensemble (which turned out to be too coded). We processed through the moment, whether to engage in the exercise or not. I told everyone I was totally fine, and not to worry, transmitting another coded message to the ensemble members. (A number of them received it!) For the rest of the afternoon, many of the ensemble members were keenly aware of one another and the other collaborators in the room. Afterward there was informal processing in all sorts of small, private groups. There was some individual processing with me.

What stinks is that as a leader of an ensemble I’m keenly aware of how I must strive to epitomize our values and, sometimes, suck it up and ignore both ensembleship and me. However: I am still 1) an ensemble member and 2) an individual person. These three identities—Ring Leader, dog & pony dc ensemble member, Rachel—are a shifting triangle. When I add to that being female, white, young-ish, small statured, a loud talker, et cetera, the identity intersections I’m navigating at any given moment are mindboggling.

(What’s even more !KA-POW! is: everyone else is also navigating their own identity intersections. But, I’ve digressed. The point is…)

Back in company training this weekend, after the slap, I wasn’t fine. I’m not fine now. All the “processing” I engaged in didn’t take away the fact that I was slapped across the face in front of my co-ensemble members, because my leader-ensemble member-individual triangle held tight with “leader” at the apex for 36-hours. Should it have? Should I have re-triangulated within the group because ensemble? (aka “trust in the system”) Should the ensemble have recalibrated in such a way that encouraged or even forced that to occur? What does “leadership” actually mean within ensemble?

And so…

My initial simple telling of the story was inadequate. It was a moment bursting with complications that continue to spill out and spread across the floor. This writing is a necessary step in my clean up process. I’ve returned safe and sound to my bowl, and now am attempting to discern what I learned. And so, I leave these questions with you

What roles do agency, equity, responsibility, and trust play in your communities?

How can we all lead and follow by example?

How do you negotiate triangulating within a tetrahedron?

Melanie here. Welcome to the fourth go at this blog post.

In the previous three tries, words all sort of fell out of my brain – a big jumbled mess of ideas and self-admonishments and details about what happened that were suddenly coming back to me. All in all, it was a little overwhelming. To think back on a time when I was doing the best I could, and then ask, what could I have done better? was a daunting concept.

At NAMPC this year, I heard a low grumbling from several attendees about the kinds of projects that come up over and over – major success stories. These are awesome, and everyone loves to hear a good success story… but what about the big hairy mess-up stories? What about the stories where you trip and scrape your knee a little? How do you get up, recover from those pitfalls? While this post isn’t about a big hairy mess-up ™, it is about a project that was a little off-base, that didn’t quite achieve what it set out to do: bring the art, artist, and audience closer together. Instead of picking it apart like a turkey carcass, I’m going to pull out three important things I learned from this one particular project.

To set the scene: in their 32nd season, Woolly Mammoth produced Jason Grote’s play Civilization (all you can eat). At the time, I was flying solo in Woolly’s connectivity department, so a lot of the formulation and execution of the engagement activities fell to me. The show presents a constellation of characters, all loosely connected to each other, who are all trying to wade through life in the wake of a recession. There is also a character named Big Hog, an anthropomorphic pig, who escapes the slaughter house in order to “make something” of himself.

Now: for what I learned.

ONE. In new play development-land, it is really difficult to try to craft a plan to deepen the audience’s investment in the work when the work keeps changing. And you need to forgive yourself and stay flexible, focusing on the entry point as much as you can (or whatever theme remains true that will serve as a filter for your ideas.)

TWO. It is more helpful to take a step back from your work than it is to keep shoving your nose into the grindstone. The most fruitful moments of discovery for myself, as well as the dramaturg and director of Civilization, was during an open read of the show with a bunch of community members, friends of Woolly (read: audience) over some pizza and beer. Their feedback and reflections on the performance was drastically different from what the team assumed the audience would get out of the play. While this was just one sampling of folks, it was still a great indicator that the engagement plan we had was being built on our own assumptions of what the audience would want to engage with before and after the production, instead of what they actually needed.

THREE. Simplicity in design is so important. I sunk a lot of money into an activity that I wanted to do in order to illustrate the concept of “selling out” by getting folks to do ridiculous things for consumable prizes (free drinks at the bar, snacks, etc.) A few people engaged with it, not for lack of interest but I really think for lack of understanding. There were too many ways to engage with the activity (there were three different activities you could do within this ONE activity, ::facepalm:: ) and the directions were not super clear. Most importantly, the core of the activity did not have enough meaning in it: so what if people wear a pig nose to get a free drink? What is that really saying about the nature of “selling out”? How is that really even “selling out” at all? It was easy to get caught up in the little details and the gimmick of the activity without making sure it fit through my entry point lens.

And, as I promised myself, I’m going to stop there.

Since this project I have continued to fill my connectivity toolbox and sharpen my skills. I still have not figured out time travel, so while I can’t go back and change the past (and why would I? wouldn’t that mess up my future?!) I can carry these lessons with me into the future and identify similar pitfalls as they come up.

Here’s hoping we’ll all keep talking about our mistakes so that we can all learn from them.

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flesh colored crayonsIn honor of February, I propose an official ban on the phrase “I don’t see color” and derivative phrases of this sentiment used in the non-profit theatre community like “color-blind [___fill in the blank___].”

Who’s with me?

Not convinced already.


  •  Watch part two of Jane Elliot’s The Angry Eye, starting at 10:00 (ps found one #withcaptions). Sharing not as an endorsement necessarily, but at 10:15 she asks a student if he identifies as male and black; he confirms he does. She asks if it is important to him ; he confirms it is. Why would we want to deny this of him by “not seeing” it, she asks.
  • Did anyone hear about Benedict Cumberbatch’s use of “colored people” in an interview with Tavis Smiley, referring to black actors? (what he said at bottom of article) Yes, the phrase “People of Color” is widely used, abbreviated to POC. I have also heard POC referred to as “People of Culture” which I both am interested in (gets away from “colored people”) and uncomfortable with (moves us in the #allLivesmatter direction). This is a roundabout way of saying, let’s check our vilifications and generalizations.
  • In December Lavina Jadhwani (Artistic Associate, Silk Road Rising and Oak Park Festival Theatre) shared her thoughts on color conscious casting in a HowlRound journal article. She details the process she and her design team went through in casting The Dutchess of Malfi at DePaul University. Getting a thorough look inside their decision making—fascinating. But what I loved was how concisely she summarized “the issue” in her opening paragraph: “I can’t think of an environment, in real life, where race doesn’t factor into relationship dynamic….I prefer the term ‘color conscious casting,’ by which I mean that race is acknowledged in, and ideally deepens, theatrical conversations.”

While my undergrad theatre instruction was narrow, it taught me that “to ignore” is not an active verb tactic. The same is true of white people when it comes to negotiating conversations about race.

If you too decide to ban “color-blind [___fill in the blank___]” from here on out, I recommend starting with reading Jadhwani’s HowlRound piece and these two articles. The first one (shared with me by the amazing Natalie Hopkinson who you should also follow because, well, she’s amazing) eventually introduced me to the word “unbalanced” to describe the feeling people of privilege have when discussing or navigating situations that spotlight their privilege. It’s not something we’re used to seeing. But it is a part of our identity, and there’s humbling strength to embrace it.

FWIW, Benedict Cumberbatch said:

“I think as far as colored actors go it gets really different in the U.K., and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the U.S.] than in the U.K., and that’s something that needs to change.”

“We’re not representative enough in our culture of different races, and that really does need to step up apace.”

How long have I been percolating on engagement and the arts? At least since 2006.

In cleaning my office, found these notes from the 2006 TCG Annual Conference in Atlanta. The topic? “Building Future Audience”

Thought I would share some notes from Kevin McCarthy’s “Understanding Arts Participation as a Behavioral Process,” a panel entitled “Who is the Audience of the Future?” with Guy Garcia and Wendy Puriefoy, moderated by Susan Booth and a closing address from TCG’s former executive director, Ben Cameron.

Enjoy (if you can read) and THANKS TCG for being awesome.