The new Web site for theatreWashington launched today. Days before, Jane Horwitz spoke with theatreWashington’s President & CEO Linda Levy Grossman and her Director of Communications & Audience Development Alli Houseworth about their immediate and longer term plans for the re-branding of the Helen Hayes Awards’ umbrella organization and its website.
“We had been looking at ourselves and what we needed to do in terms of strategic growth for this organization for a very long time,” says Linda Levy Grossman, President & CEO of theatreWashington, the new name of the re-branded Helen Hayes Awards organization.
Grossman, her staff and board members intend for theatreWashington to become a far broader and, they hope, bigger-budgeted organization that will represent, promote and advocate for the Washington area theater community both locally and nationally.
Plans for theatreWashington have grown out of regular “conversations” that Grossman & co. have held with local theater artists and managing directors over a period of years, she says. “This is a conversation that is much bigger than the awards. It is an institutional conversation…about the direction of this organization and all the work that it has been doing, how that work has been recognized and really how we can go forward…as of last year, the Helen Hayes Awards is but one-twelfth of everything else we do,” says Grossman.
“Audience development initiatives, publications, education programs — even though we promote them, even though we discuss them…institutionally, that part of the work simply has not been heard. And ultimately, what we found ourselves in was quite a conundrum of perception…that all we do is give out trophies, albeit that the awards program itself is very valuable and has been a tremendous booster to the health of theater in this community. But it is not all that we did, all that we do.”
While theater critics and members of the theater community have at various times taken the Helen Hayes Awards to task for being too much of a booster, Grossman does not accept that criticism. She maintains that the judges who attend shows are held to high standards and that the awards, whether everyone agrees with the results from year to year, are serious and independently arrived at. That the organization that does the awards sees itself as promoting Washington area theater does not and has never seemed like a conflict to her or her staff and board members.
Promoting Washington area theater and its artists, both locally and around the country, will be the primary raison d’être of theatreWashington, along with an expanded effort to connect school kids with theater.
About two years ago, says Grossman, the Helen Hayes Awards people met with “a bunch” of managing directors of area theaters to discuss an expressed need to expand the purview of the awards organization. “We said, OK, tell us what you want. What do you need? Why do you want us to do this, and what are you going to do to help sustain it?”
Funding is always an issue, because the Helen Hayes Awards gala itself, notes Grossman, “is not a moneymaker in any way, shape or form.” That’s because of all the free and discounted tickets given out to theater artists. The shortfall is made up with sponsorships, but the event does not increase the organization’s coffers, says Grossman. So they continue to broaden their fundraising, horizon and all the big plans they have for theatreWashington are contingent upon funding, which is why the “rollout” of the theatreWashington’s agenda is coming — no pun intended — in stages.
“ The funding and the initiative rollout go hand-in-hand. If there is no funding for those initiatives, we don’t do them…we don’t do the initiative without the funding,” Grossman states emphatically.
They have, as of now, obtained the funding to increase their full-time staff. “This organization has been handicapped for quite a long time by too much work being done by too few people. That’s not sustainable. And we needed a level of talent, if we’re going to do what it is that we need to do…so we made an investment.”
Grossman says she and her staff hope that future funding, or at least part of it, will come from earned income generated by the theatreWashington organization and its new website. Grossman speaks of opportunities to “monetize social networking and social media.” Some theaters that can afford it, may also “participate financially” in theatreWashington, but that prospect, says Grossman remains a mere sketchy possibility at this point. She emphasizes, however, that a theater’s financial participation or non-participation with theatreWashington will in no way affect its chances with regard to the Helen Hayes Awards.
Grossman elaborated for us on the five-point plan for getting the new theatreWashington up and running:
#1: The Helen Hayes Awards. These will continue, she says, and evolve, based on input from the theater community and audience members. That input, Grossman notes, is why they began to include awards honoring theater for young audiences and for ensemble work.
The “Helen Hayes Recommended” program is in its second year of testing. Judges who see a show, while filling out their ballots for the awards, also have the option to check a box saying whether they recommend a production or not. If a majority of the nine judges who see a show (8 plus an alternate) check the “recommended” box, then the show is “Helen Hayes Recommended.” (Note: The alternate judge does not vote on the awards themselves, unless one of the regular judges cannot.)
Whether audiences are confused by a “Helen Hayes Recommended” blurb in an ad, for example, and believe that a show has already won an award, does not seem to be an issue for Grossman. She sees it as separate and apart from the awards themselves, and believes that some theaters consider it a good marketing tool. The idea itself, she notes, came from within the theater community, and is similar to what’s being done in Los Angeles and Chicago.
At this point, says Grossman, any evidence indicating that a “Helen Hayes Recommended” imprimatur increases ticket sales is strictly “anecdotal. There are many theaters that love it. It doesn’t hurt. That’s what they know. But there can be many factors that contribute to increase in ticket sales. Those who use it like it,” she adds.
#2: Promoting Washington Area Theater. That goal, says Grossman is “to communicate the riches and the offerings of what is here for those who live here [and to] build a brand for Washington Theater for those who visit here…to see what’s playing.”
Promoting Washington area theater will, says Grossman, go beyond what the organization already does. These ongoing efforts include the “Washington Theatre Guide” which is a hard-copy multipage pamphlet, the theater ticket gift certificates, the Helen Hayes Recommended program, co-op ads in Washington City Paper and the Washington Audience Collaborative Database. The database enables theaters, going through a third-party mailing house, to avail themselves of other theater’s audience lists, but only with permission. Audience contact information is not shared — just used by the mailing house. There are also the monthly evenings of cocktails and show tunes at the Jefferson Hotel as mini-fundraisers, and the Halloween festivities at the White House, for which the Helen Hayes Awards, now theatreWashington has brought in local performers to entertain.
Then there is the new theatreWashington website which will be, says Grossman, “an amazing content management system. It will enable a potential theatergoer, she explains, to “search and filter through all of the various criteria, to identify, to narrow down their selections…by type of show, by age, by price point. But it will also have map links, parking info, dining info, summaries of the shows, and user-generated reviews.” And all of the things theatreWashington does already — gift certificates, community festivals such as Arts On Foot, the Helen Hayes Recommended program, will be up there, too, she promises.
Down the road, adds Grossman, the website will additionally become a repository for performers, directors and designers to put up all their professional information so that casting directors and others can look them up for potential future work.
Other ideas Grossman says they’re toying with, are, for example, a play-of-the-month club via social media and the website, to enable people with similar tastes and interests to attend a play together and then talk or blog about it afterwards. There will be opportunities to connect with backstage tours, post-show talkbacks, dress rehearsals, or, says Grossman, “a promotion whereby a ticket buyer buys a ticket to five different Washington area theaters and they get a free ticket to the Helen Hayes Awards.” Those are a few of the “initiatives” they’re considering that, she says, “will put butts in seats and raise the awareness of the richness of the offerings.”
They’ll also intend to link with Destination DC on the washington.org tourism website. “What we want to happen is before somebody comes to Washington, that they look up on theatreWashington.org what’s playing,” says Grossman.
It’s at this juncture that Alli Houseworth’s expertise comes into play. A social media whiz, Houseworth is theatreWashington’s Director of Communications & Audience Development. She comes to them from Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co., where she was director of marketing and communications. Houseworth knows from Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Groupon, etc. She teaches a course at Columbia University for MFA students, titled “Audience Engagement In-Line and Online.”
Houseworth can’t wait to start melding DC area theater marketing departments, theatreWashington.org and social media. She thinks she can use social media not only for marketing, but for fundraising — national fundraising. The contributions made in response to a a single theater’s request for donations might be small — $5, $10 — but they add up fast. Houseworth actually won a bet while at Woolly Mammoth that she could raise nearly two-thousand bucks in a short period of time via Woolly’s Facebook Page and her Twitter followers. It exceeded expectations. She wants to raise money for theatreWashington in similar outside-the-box ways.
“It has to be a really, really creative and specific campaign. That’s the only way that social media fundraising works,” explains Houseworth. Most theaters, she adds, are way behind the curve on this issue compared to, say, the world of games and gamers. Houseworth says she’s currently “very, very focused on rolling out the [theatreWashington] website right now. So my long-term communications plan, to be frank, is still in development.”
On a Post-It note in her office, says Houseworth, is the message “Expand your social networks!” Right off the bat when the website goes up, she says she’ll “start linking our online news and feature content with our social media.” For example, if Manny Strauss, the Managing Editor of theatreWashington’s website, puts up a new article, a reader can “like” the piece and it’ll pop up on the reader’s Facebook page where others can see it and learn about theatreWashington.
“I don’t believe that the success of social media is based on the size of your network or your followers. It’s how you develop those relationships,” explains Houseworth. The challenge of using social media in the nonprofit arts world, she continues, is “a challenge of resources, and it’s not particularly financial resources. It’s more like staffing resources and time management. There’s so much to keep up with all the time.”
And that is why Houseworth has another Post-It at her desk reminding her of theatreWashington’s mission statement. “Every status or every Tweet that I put out there needs to align with our mission: Is the Tweet promoting Washington theater? Is it representing an artist?”
Houseworth has “huge, huge long-term goals” for theatreWashington and social media.
Now back to Linda Levy Grossman’s to-do list for the re-branded organization:
#3: Advocacy. The recent kerfuffle over a possible entertainment tax that would have raised the cost of theater tickets exemplifies, says Grossman, how the Helen Hayes Awards organization and now theatreWashington will try to promote or head off issues that could affect area stages for good or ill. For the ticket tax, she explains, “we helped mobilize the community, artists, audiences, businesses that would be affected by it, simply to provide more information to the DC Council about how such a tax would impact the community as a whole — that in fact it was a misguided and perhaps somewhat misinformed concept,” she says. “We were able to present that position very clearly and again were backed up by more than 5,000 signatures on petitions and letters.”
Another aspect of advocating for area theater, notes Grossman, would be “to make connections between theaters and potential funders.”
#4: Education. While the Helen Hayes Awards organization has, notes Grossman, provided free programming — educators, tickets, transportation, resource material — in DC public schools, and Boys and Girls Clubs in the area, they intend to alter their approach to getting school kids acquainted with live theater. They will instead connect schools with theater companies that already have outreach and education programs and try to find the best match between school and theater. They are planning a “theater education expo” for next spring, at which theater companies, teachers and administrators can mingle and perhaps get new programs going.
“Maybe if we can make those connections a little bit more efficiently, children can be served [and] theaters can connect with all new audiences. It’s a win-win,” says Grossman.
#5: Professional Development and Support. In other words, networking. One ongoing example is the Canadian/Washington Theatre Partnership, in cooperation with the Canadian embassy. For each of the past 11 years, the program has sent two DC area artistic directors annually to Canada to attend theater and find new plays to stage here.
Then there are the annual summer “theater advisory panel conversations” where new ideas for the Helen Hayes Awards and promotion of area theater are batted around and perhaps eventually brought to fruition.
But time to take networking to a new level, says Grossman. “Everybody agrees that one of the great things about the Helen Hayes Awards is the party afterwards. It’s not just the free booze It’s the opportunity each year that artists get to see and be with their colleagues in one place,” says Grossman. Developing that idea, she says, “We are going to be convening monthly, beginning in October [this month], regular monthly networking forums…so for instance, one month there would be networking for artistic and managing directors, and the next month communication directors…the next month could be for technical and production managers.”
Besides enabling more networking live and on the theatreWashington website — putting artists in touch with one another and with theaters, helping theaters connect with potential funders — Grossman says there are two more “big ideas” she and her staff are marinating that won’t happen for a while yet: 1) Health insurance for theater artists, and 2) a storage repository for scenery, props and costumes — a warehouse that many theaters could use, thus not having to discard useful materials for want of space.
In addition to Houseworth, and theatreWashington Board President Victor Shargai, the expanded staff includes Strauss, who, with Betsy Karmin, published the Washington Theater Review from 2003-2007. Strauss will be special advisor to Grossman and the managing editor of the theatreWashington.org website.
Brad Watkins will be director of theater services. He comes to theatreWashington from Olney Theatre Center where he was producing director. His resume goes all the way back to the old Harlequin Dinner Theater, and the Troika production company that grew out of Harlequin and tours musicals.
Allison Dreskin, who joined the Helen Hayes Awards in 2005, is now theatreWashington’s operations manager as is Michael Kyrkioglou who now serves as Theatre Communications Manager.
Grossman says theatreWashington will hire a development director, but in the meantime, she, Grossman, is it.