If misery loves company, our nation is in the midst of a
love fest. Except for industries like fast food, no sector has been immune from
the current economic downturn. Looking in every direction, the news is dire:
hotel occupancy in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis is at record lows,
restaurants are seeing fewer diners, the housing marketing can’t gain traction,
small businesses are folding, and large corporations are laying off employees
in large numbers. Of course, the theater industry is no exception.

So why shouldn’t we be crying in our porridge? Because this
economic plight provides our community with an opportunity not present in
decades. Seeing theaters as neighborhood nuclei, we can develop an innovative
civic engagement plan that will not only provide our neighborhoods with
economic benefits in the short term, but also nurture long-term economic and
social successes for the theater industry hand-in-hand with many other sectors in our community.

What are three principal tenets of this plan?

  1. Meet
    the needs of the neighborhood (i.e., marketing, promotions, safety, youth
    activity) through coalition building.
  2. Engage
    neighbors socially.
  3. Leverage
    business and leisure visitors.

1. Build coalitions. Many successful theater companies already are partnering with local coffee shops, restaurants, and nonprofit organizations to cut marketing and promotional costs. These coalitions are the tip of the iceberg. Forming or joining neighborhood coalitions of representatives from small business, corporations, developers, government agencies, the hospitality industry, real estate (commercial and residential), schools, libraries and other nonprofit organizations can not only inspire, but also produce results. Theaters often times have the physical space, creative staff, and product that can be lifesavers for other businesses looking for innovative ways to reach their customers or market their product. And what theater wouldn’t welcome a decrease in marketing costs, an increase in rental income, or a growing audience—by aligning with neighboring businesses?

2. Engage the neighborhood. The fact that Minnesota leads the nation in National Night Out attendance is proof that Minnesotans like to know their neighbors. For so many people who are working several jobs to make ends meet as their paychecks shrink, casual social interaction is difficult. Here’s an idea—why not have a monthly theater night for the neighborhood that spills over into drinks and dessert after the show? If Twin Citians knew that the second Thursday of every month was “Theater Night” and a chance to meet their neighbors, who knows the results that kind of social interaction can create?

3. Leverage metro guests. Cities with the most vibrant retail economy have a vibrant tourism base. One visit to Pike’s Market in Seattle, Michigan Avenue in Chicago, or Union Square in San Francisco is proof of that. Here in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area, we can’t expect locals to entirely support our downtown retail, nor can we expect the same number of theater goers from year to year to support our growing theater industry. But we’ve got the bait to hook a great tourist demographic—more professional theater companies than almost anywhere else in the country! Our theater community can assist the convention and tourism associations in luring guests to our community, but what we really need to do is ensure that visitors actually get out and see theater once they are here. For example, let’s make it as simple for hotel guests to purchase tickets to plays as it is for them to order breakfast sent to their room.

How do we begin to implement this plan? Each April for the
past two years, the Ivey Awards has hosted a thank-you event for theater board
members, built on the principle that it is our 800-plus Twin Cities
professional theater board members who have the networking capability, business
acumen, and passion to be theater’s premier brand ambassadors. It is this same
group of community leaders who can fill and inspire the neighborhood
committees, build business coalitions, and leverage our industry’s strengths
throughout the country.

In 2009, the Ivey advisory board will form a core committee
of passionate thinkers and doers to develop strategies that neighborhood
committees can use for action that works specifically for them. It’s easy to
cry about the problem, but so much more exciting to be part of the solution.
Throughout history, theater has educated, inspired, and generated
groundbreaking ideas, and that’s the role of our Twin Cities theaters, too—especially
now.