Get Your Theater More Than an Audience–Build a Fandom

55,000 fans attend a SHINee concert at Japan's Tokyo Dome. Does your organization market this well?

Growing up United Methodist, I participated in a variety of activities and rituals that shaped my understanding of the human condition. While, when practiced poorly, religion can get a bad rap as a set of doctrines to be believed or bizarre ideas to be swallowed against all scientific proof, being part of a rather lax church in an almost notoriously open-minded denomination spared me these inconveniences. The Bible not being something that had to be taken literally, church was not about making sure we all had the same beliefs and instead about the experiences and conversations religion could cultivate. I developed a habit of thinking deeply about the meaning behind one’s actions, how to pursue ancient questions on the mysteries of life and the utter necessity of living selflessly in an often selfish world. I went on service projects to Appalachia or to the high school version of Sunday school, where adult volunteers led thoughtful, sometimes irreverent discussions about social issues or current events. Instead of just existing for a Sunday service, the church operated as a hub for a particular lifestyle and set of interests, and offered opportunities that extended beyond its borders.

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I bring this up because this lifestyle no doubt also prepared me for a life in theater. It’s probably part of the reason I find it natural to sit in an audience and welcome a message for me to grapple with. (Any regular mainline church attendee knows a service, far from being an infallible message offered from on high, is taken apart and privately weighed in on by almost everyone in the congregation the second they leave the sanctuary.)  And our theater, of course, has its roots as a religious practice, when the Greeks gathered for the Great Dionysia. But, as time has progressed and the performing arts and religion have diverged into their mostly separate spheres, the arts have generally lost the lifestyle quality the church has retained. Theaters (and movie theaters, concert venues, etc.) are rarely hubs for a particular community and way of life but more often places to attend on certain occasions. But what would it look like if a theater company were, for example, to create an intentional community surrounding their work, so the experience of the company extended throughout their patrons’ lives beyond the few hours it takes to perform a play? What would an arts “lifestyle” be like in practice? I can’t think of many artists or companies that have pulled this off, but I am reminded of an international example—the K-pop industry.

What would an arts lifestyle look like?

In August I was in South Korea visiting a friend from college who now teaches there, and I was thrust into the K-pop world as I joined her friends at the Big Bang 0.TO.10 concert, a farewell to one of the biggest boy bands in the world. (It goes without saying that I was not the target audience, but they put on a good show.) Standing as a relative K-pop newcomer in Seoul’s World Cup stadium, my normally reserved friend on an ascendant plane of fandom joy, it was clear that the culture surrounding these artists ran far deeper than the music. There is, of course, the vast merchandising, along with signature collectible lightsticks for many groups. (The band SHINee even offers a massive baton-like “Shabat” that comes in its own carrying case.) There is the nonstop social media discussion, the fanclubs, the tireless fan blogs and the dense politics of “bias,” where rivalries can ensue between acquaintances who share the same favorite idols. And while we have some of this in the U.S. music industry as well, the much smaller size of Korea leads to a uniquely charged celebrity culture where it is much easier for fans to encounter their favorite artists. If I said it represents art as a lifestyle with similarities to religious engagement, it wouldn’t be as an arbitrary analogy for devotion. Walk the streets of Myeong-dong, a huge shopping district, and among the many displays of pop idols advertising different stores you’ll also find a similar display of Pope Francis. Recalling a recent wedding she attended, my friend, who is nonreligious, admitted being surprised by parts of the service recited in loud unison, but could put them in some perspective for how they reminded her of the memorized fanchants that people recite at concerts. One of the foundations of a lifestyle is a set of rituals that give people a sense of community, and K-pop culture certainly has that—indeed, far more intensely than I’ve ever seen in a church.

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Given all this, is K-pop culture my vision for a fully engaged artistic community, one that theaters and other organization should try to adapt? I’m not sure. It’s impossible to pigeonhole a whole genre– like anything, some of it is rather inspired and some of it more meh — and the culture critic in me can’t help but also want to deconstruct it. I wonder to what degree, for example, some of the generally young fans understand how much their favorite groups are still corporate entities. I wonder how much they understand their favorite idols—while no doubt talented—are still total strangers, and the engineered products of teams of choreographers, coaches, stylists, trainers (and, in many cases, plastic surgeons), calibrated to be as popular and revenue-generating as possible. And I wonder at what point certain promotional events, such as those that encourage fans to buy as many of the same album as possible for a raffle-like chance to win a fleeting interaction with their favorite groups, stop being fun competitions and start becoming predatory on their more vulnerable adherents. Also, when we consider what an arts organization “lifestyle” might look like, I think it should play to the arts’ strength of promoting particular values and social perspectives. K-pop doesn’t really need to stand for anything—it’s fine just as an experience of music and spectacle. But were a theater to try to tap into this, it’d need something more.
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So, what can a theater learn from a successful arts “lifestyle” like K-pop, while still emphasizing the art over the commerce? Well, what if it merchandised more, but incorporated the merchandise into the experience somehow? I’d buy a Steppenwolf or a Northlight lightstick—or something less distracting to the actors (although the “Northlightstick” has such a great ring to it)—and this could be tied into a special membership program that offers discounts or access to special events. Speaking of events, what if there were just more going on at theaters on a regular basis?

The carefully curated Big Bang in 2016

You can stop by a church any day of the week and they’ll probably have something going on. While theaters obviously have plays, and tend to program a few additional lectures or events, what if they functioned more like libraries, resource centers or cafes focused on the issues related to their programming? What if people always knew they could stop by a theater and feel a sense of belonging, that they were among a community devoted to a particular set of values or issues? And what if—and this might be controversial—we put more effort into turning local actors into recognizable figures? I’m not saying we try to brand them into polished celebrity superhumans, but the more we treat them as important people whose work is worth seeing, the more audiences will take an interest in them and want to follow their careers. These fandom strategies, while at times gimmicky, do work — everyone likes to be a part of something — so why not try them?

These fandom strategies do work, so why not try them?

Right now, we think of arts organizations as something you attend as a guest, but not as something you are personally a part of. But as churches and successfully branded arts lifestyles like K-pop culture show, people can take a much deeper interest in the art they consume if they are invited into it and given ways to integrate it into their daily lives. For a theater to pull this off, to cultivate a lifestyle and a fandom, it may require a rethinking of just what a theater is and how it is supposed to function in people’s lives. But our artists are already such naturals at experimenting with what gets put onstage, surely they’re equipped to experiment with the theater itself.

If not, I know of a band that’s going on hiatus soon. Perhaps they can do some consulting.