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Is It a Lab or a Theatre Lobby - The Kirk Douglas Theatre Experiences with Engaging Audiences


A student places his card on the wall as part of the pre-show game for the Center Theatre Group Young Audience Program matinee of the 24th STreet Theatre production of "Walking the Tightrope" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Photo by Ryan Miller.

Each time audiences enter the lobby of the Kirk Douglas Theatre, they’re taking part in an experiment that fuses ideas from theatre, the Apple Store, and game design. For The Convert in 2013, which told the story of a young woman trapped between ancient African traditions and Christianity, audiences were invited to “visually vote” for their own beliefs by placing stones in different baskets. For the 2015 show Girlfriend, a teenage love story, audiences were prompted to write their first love story in three sentences, then combine that story with someone else’s before placing the mismatched and rearranged stories at the entrance to the theatre.

These activities are part of the Douglas Concierge program, which debuted in late 2007. CTG Audience Experience Designer Tom Burmester was looking to engage Douglas audiences more deeply with the work they were seeing and to “break theatre out of the traditional boundaries of the stage,” he said. Burmester looked to the Apple Store’s highly successful concierge program for inspiration, and came up with the idea of creating a skilled concierge team at the Douglas. The concierges serve as a “cross between teaching artists and theatrical guides,” explained Burmester, which is why most of them are working theatre artists as well, and many have advanced degrees in the field.

The concierge staff members facilitate discussions in the form of post-show “downloads,” implement pre-and post-show games for the audiences, and provide theatrical context. And while Burmester applies concepts and methods from game design and human interaction studies, he said that he envisioned the program simply as a way for the audience to talk to someone knowledgeable about theatre—and to get at the core of the art form. After all, every theatre artist creates as a way to converse with the audience. The set, lighting, sound, and even the performers are just tools to facilitate that conversation. The Douglas Concierge ensures that the conversation doesn’t begin when the curtain rises or end when it falls.

Often, that means having the artists onstage collaborate with the concierge team, said Burmester, and “translate what they’re doing on the stage to reach out past it.” For Chavez Ravine, Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya worked with the concierge team to facilitate the post-show downloads, which he later renamed “town halls.” They became extensions of the performance, with a tone and setup that resembled a rally for community activism. Similarly, for I’ve Never Been So Happy, the Rude Mechs transformed the lobby into a pre-show “shindig” with food, dancing, and other party activities.

It has also been rewarding for Burmester to watch personal relationships between concierges and audience members emerge. Over the program’s eight years, the audience has become more social, allowing a community to develop to between artists, patrons, and the concierge staff. If the Douglas Concierge experiment has proven anything, it’s that people love to participate in, and play with, their theatre experience.

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