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To build a bridge you have to start on both shores

“I am writing to thank you and everyone at CPT for giving us a chance to see ourselves through Dream of Home. It was the first time in my life that I saw people who looked like me, spoke in a language I hear at home, and danced to music I danced to growing up, performing our stories on a stage. Representation matters!”

This quote is from an email to Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT) following our premiere performance of the Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi project, and I cannot fully understand it.

Raymond Bobgan, Executive Artistic Director, explains…

It’s not the first time I’ve received such an email, but this one struck me so deeply. I knew this emailer was in the audience the night before they hit the send button. They were there as applause burst out during the opening scene when the cast, standing in a single line, simply turned to face the audience — that simple act of standing on stage was enough. I was there and I was one of the creators of the play, but I can only imagine what the writer of this email experienced. Years before, I remember watching an audience member in tears in the first minutes of a play. After the show, I asked him about his experience and he said, “It’s the language, just hearing it.” “But don’t you hear it every day?” “Yes, but to hear it on stage!”

I grew up with theatre. I saw hundreds of plays before I ever saw a play NOT in English. I was in Romania participating in an international festival and saw an Italian play for children about mortality! I felt I understood. I was thrilled by the performance and invigorated by the effort I had to make to listen in so many other ways. This curiosity, this desire to work on artistic bridge-building is at the core of the process that can result in an email like the above and lay the foundation for a long path.

Cleveland Public Theatre

The mission of Cleveland Public Theatre is to nurture compassion and raise consciousness through groundbreaking performance and life-changing education programmes. Beyond launching new works by local and national writers, featuring a majority of works by women and playwrights of colour, we decided to undertake an effort to build culturally specific theatres under our umbrella. Our first efforts resulted in Teatro Público de Cleveland, now six years old, which has produced four original, devised plays in Spanish and English, four regional premieres of Spanish language plays, and many short performances and staged readings. Three years ago, we began the community organising work that ultimately led to the launch of Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi. Each of these projects has sold out houses from an expansive demographic. Many of the audience members do not go to the theatre, and a few have never been to the theatre as adults. Both Teatro Público de Cleveland and Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi include seasoned and first-time actors – artists taking the stage together at various levels of experience sharing personal stories with packed houses.

Diverse audiences

This work has accomplished what many arts organisations talk about — larger and more diverse audiences — but if we had set out solely with this end in mind, we would not have been successful. And we have seen this across the country: theatres doing specific work to connect to audiences for specific plays that sprout relationships but have no real trajectory. They present at conferences and get media attention, but when you come back three years later, are they fundamentally changed? Where are those relationships now? How have they grown? (Isn’t that a big part of why we started this endeavor of art, to be transformed?) Cleveland Public Theatre could have easily presented a theatre group that speaks Arabic, but we would not have been changed, and the results would have been short-term and relatively shallow. We also could have presented parties and concerts with the Latino community, which is what many suggested, but the community would not have been changed, and we would not have given a gift we value. It’s a two-way street, this bridge we build.

For us, we were not just doing something to attract audiences or even to serve our community (a sentiment that is both noble and disquieting). We were also doing this from a natural artistic drive — a yearning to connect in real and lasting ways. We were not doing this purely to further our agenda and the art we were already making. We were doing this with an essential intent of being changed — having our art changed, our agenda changed. And every time our aesthetic notion of “artistic excellence” has been challenged! Not because of a lack of quality but because of different values. We have learned authenticity can outweigh articulation. We learned some moments we thought were “too sentimental” or “ridiculously fakey” actually resonated deeply. We also were affirmed that storytelling can bring out new truths even for the teller and that our own craft can stand up cross-culturally. And I am reminded that in my growth as a professional I must cling to my amateurishness — the desire to do it for the love. And why is that word “love” used so little in discussions of our passionate craft? And can we speak with ambition about the spirit and the spiritual and interconnectedness that hooked our hearts and dragged us along in our pursuit of great art?

I asked Faye Hargate, my CPT collaborator on both Teatro Público and Masrah Al-Arabi and Director of Community Ensembles, about how this work has changed her art. She said, “How do you measure how your life is changed when you meet someone new and a year later you have become close friends, or when your friend has a baby, or when your heart is opened by someone sharing a secret?” Yes, they are with you as you move on to new projects because you know you will be with them tomorrow.

Attracting theatre to new people

We are building a bridge and for every moment of “community organising” we undertake, there is also a step forward, a leaning in to listen and be changed. Yes, this is about attracting new people to the theatre, but it is also about attracting theatre to new people. This is about fundamental change — a bridge across. And we must bring ourselves to this work, our whole selves. We must bring our best artistry to this work. Audience engagement, audience building, diversity, inclusion… these stock phrases… for me it all ultimately leads to one thing. It all leads back to the practice of our craft, to the fundamentals of our art, a return to those things that set us on this journey and have inspired us along the way. It is a return to our mission of compassion and consciousness. This is hard work, filled with doubt and challenge and mistrust, but it is also joyful work with affirmation and awakening and new depths of trust. And gratitude.

Gratitude: I cannot say it enough — my thanks and praise and honour to the incredible artists who have made this journey, who took a risk and built this bridge, these intertwined bridges that are still growing and multiplying and branching off. We cannot build bridges alone and the purpose of any bridge is to traverse — and the gift of any bridge is not just to cross but to walk it with eyes wide and an openness to the worlds.

Raymond Bobgan, Executive Artistic Director, Cleveland Public Theatre will be speaking at the AMA’s Inclusivity and Audiences Symposium on 11 February in Birmingham.


There are many resources on AMAculturehive designed to build your knowledge of current research on keeping inclusion – in its broadest sense – at the heart of your work. You’ll find practical guides, case studies and videos offering a range of perspectives on how working inclusively can enhance your organisation.


Image: Raymond Bobgan by Laura Ruth Bidwell

How does the cultural sector’s use of data measure up?

How valuable is it to know that you’re heading in the right direction?

One of the biggest benefits promised by the move towards digital marketing from more traditional channels (print, radio, TV) is the ability to measure performance and understand what works and what doesn’t.

In their 2017-18 CMO Spend Survey, the research company Gartner revealed that 9.2% of total marketing budgets were being allocated to analytics. They point out that analytics is “central to delivering customer experience, identifying, understanding and growing customers, and measuring and optimizing marketing performance”.

Is the cultural sector following this trend?

The cultural sector’s data challenges

From what I’ve seen, I don’t think it is. There are some excellent exceptions but, in general, the cultural sector seems to have been very slow to adopt data-driven practices that are commonplace in other sectors.

This has been backed up by some recent reports.

The 2017 Digital Culture Survey from Nesta and Arts Council England found that “the majority of arts and cultural organisations still do not use data for important purposes such as understanding their audiences better through data analysis and profiling”.

This was echoed by the recent Culture is Digital report which warned that “A lack of skills in data analysis is preventing cultural organisations from collecting data and using it to develop their business models“.

Seeing the wood for the trees

When it comes to arts marketing, data collection isn’t a problem. Pretty much every digital tool that you use features some sort of dashboard or table of metrics. From your website (with Google Analytics and user feedback tools) and CRM/ticketing systems, to your email, social media, and PPC performance reports.

However, the next step is to use that data for segmenting, remarketing, automating, prospecting, evaluating, predicting, and optimising. In other words, finding insights that lead to action.

This seems to be where the problem lies.

The Digital Culture Survey found that only 34% of organisations feel ‘well-served’ for data analysis. There aren’t many cultural organisations employing digital analysts, CRM specialists, or business analysts. In most cases, people in other roles just have to do what they can with the time available.

But as I said, it’s not all doom and gloom and there are lots of organisations that are doing excellent work. I’ve chosen to highlight:

  • The Royal Academy of Arts’ digital content strategy
  • English National Opera’s website development and ongoing optimisation
  • Sam Freeman’s experiments with visualising ticketing data

Examples of good practice with data in the cultural sector

At the 2017 Museums and the Web Conference, The Royal Academy of Arts won an award for their digital content strategy. It’s a piece of work rooted in the organisation’s objectives and principles and informed by data at every turn.

Louise Cohen, Head of Digital Content and Channels, explains that to begin with “there was little reflection on why we were doing it, and most staff at this stage had no digital training or understanding of analytics, no awareness of what had or hadn’t been successful in the past”.

Training sessions, purpose-built dashboards (with targets), and new processes were introduced. Louise says “Having these in place has made a huge difference to our output and to our culture. We are reminded to be more focused with where we put our resources, and to push for continual improvement“.

When English National Opera‘s website was relaunched in 2016, some features were included because data pointed to the way they improved the user’s experience. For instance, as this Econsultancy article mentions, the ‘sticky’ book buttons that stay on the page no matter how far the user scrolls are used twice as often as the static button near the top of the page. This is even more pronounced on mobile devices.

Investment in analytics and user testing has continued since and informed significant changes to the website (PDF). You don’t get much more radical than replacing your homepage with your what’s on section, but data from Google Analytics and feedback from pop-up surveys made a compelling case.

Sam Freeman is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Theatr Clwyd. In a series of blog posts he’s documented his experiments in taking data from his venue’s ticketing system and importing it into Tableau, a data visualisation tool. He’s used this to speed up access to his data and insights.

In his own wordsI’m not a programmer, or a mathematician, or a data scientist – I’m an enthusiastic amateur and geek who wants to make some charts to see if I can sell more tickets“.

Using data with purpose

Opening up reports and dashboards and hoping that insights will pop out is a surefire way to find information that’s interesting but ultimately useless.

The examples above are all very different, but the process was the same – start with a clear purpose and a set of questions, find the necessary data, and then act on the findings.

This is what I’ll be talking about at Future Now, with examples of cost-effective tools and simple techniques to help you move away from guesswork and let your data show the way.

Chris Unitt, One Further.

Chris will be speaking at Digital Marketing Day 2018 — Future Now in London, 5 December.

Sessions: Letting your Data Show You the Way and Using Data to See the Future

He will also be hosting our day workshop Measuring Up — taking your Google Analytics skills to the next level


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