Reaching the Right: Can Arts Touch Conservative Audiences?


In my last post, I suggested that the US performing arts sector is not doing a particularly good job of reaching politically conservative Americans. Excellent work is being produced on today’s stages — addressing issues important to many liberals, such as social justice, inequality and environmental sustainability — but this art is not getting to those whose perspectives we might want to influence. So instead of effecting change, we have projects like Michael Moore on Broadway in The Terms of My Surrender, which essentially rants to the NYC progressive choir.

Conservative audiences are not coming to Broadway to see Moore, but could less divisive performers or more relatable material get them to the theater? I’ve come off the idea that we need different stories to attract conservative audiences. Great stories with purpose are always great stories with purpose. But I do believe the way those stories are packaged and promoted can attract conservative audiences.

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The first challenge is to convince prospective audiences that there should be no fear of embarrassment associated with coming to a performance. Decades of research have shown that the best demographic predictor of attendance to all performing arts disciplines is level of educational attainment. Attendance is not about income, age or even race, so why is the biggest predictor of arts participation how far you went in school? There are lots of theories, but the one I subscribe to is that more one is educated, the more one is likely to take intellectual risks. People who believe in their own thinking skills are more apt to allow themselves to be dragged off to some obscure modern opera with the sense that they will figure out what’s going on, and might even be enhanced by the experience.

Now invite people who’ve only finished high school to that same performance. Odds are they will resist. Without a sense of intellectual confidence, they fear feeling embarrassed and perhaps inferior to an audience of people who at least pretend to understand plot, nuance and theme. For many people, attending a performance is equated with shelling out big bucks to feel stupid in a sea of strangers, to be thrown out of one’s cultural comfort zone. How do we fix that? Well, we could try to get those reluctant audience to believe some of the following:

  1. The performance doesn’t necessarily mean anything specific, so no worries if I don’t get it.
  2. There will be other people in the audience who are in the same boat as I am.
  3. Even if I don’t understand the performance, I can get a lot out of the experience of coming to the theater.
  4. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Delivering these messages is not easy. Marketers risk insulting prospective audiences if the message is too demeaning. Organizations must consider alternative media and don’t necessarily have the financial resources to risk losing their core audiences. One low-cost strategy could be to gather a small set of conservative Americans and then prepare and motivate that group to recruit their peers. Call it the Judas Goat strategy, in which a trained goat is used to lead sheep and cattle to a specific destination. I’ll stop the analogy short of the slaughterhouse, as I hope our motives are profoundly more kindhearted.

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The idea of destination itself is something we need to question. We cannot merely expect prospective conservative audiences to come to our urban temples of art. We in the performing arts sector must take the work to the places where conservative Americans live, work and play. We need to think about presenting in places that are less intimidating, less formal, less distant.

Years ago, I helped produce a live show that toured to 35 shopping malls across Canada in 56 days. The client was Mattel and the show included a performance by “Barbie and the Rockers” and some other hit toys. Our six cast members and four musicians had a blast touring the country, doing five shows a day, building and breaking down sets in the middle of large public spaces, competing with the noise of the atrium fountain and the smells of the Food Court. The budget was decent — the gig paid for me to go to grad school — but the point is that our client knew the organization would deliver the show to the audience it was seeking.

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Mission accomplished.

Maybe we can cajole conservative audiences to come to current venues, but I suspect real success will depend on finding new, economical ways to reach people. Let’s build our literal and figurative revival tents and then let’s take our stories on the road.