By Emily Bray & Jen Benoit-Bryan

 

In early 2021, the Signature Theatre in NYC shared that they wanted to learn about the experiences of Black and Latinx audiences in their theater around welcome and belonging with the goal of making the theater a more welcoming space. Harold Wolpert, the former executive director of Signature Theatre and Rochelle Torres, Signature’s Director of Marketing, Communications, and Engagement, relayed that “after we began the research in the spring, it became abundantly apparent that we needed to do more to reach audiences from communities that have historically been underrepresented in theatres, particularly after the country began to reckon with violence against the Black community.”

At this time, the Slover Linett team had just concluded a round of qualitative interviews with Signature Theatre focused on deepening audience engagement, and we were energized by the opportunity to do another round of interviews with a focus on welcome and belonging. In addition to the 20 interviews, we had already conducted in March and April of 2020, my colleagues Melody Buyukozer Dawkins and Esthela Alarcon-Teagle conducted an additional 24 interviews with Black and Latinx theatregoers with a focus on unpacking the concepts of welcome and belonging. Here are some of the most fascinating findings that emerged from those interviews:

Welcome and Belonging aren’t the same. We started this phase of the research thinking of welcome and belonging as relatively interchangeable terms. Yet, many of our interviewees described them as distinct constructs—with “welcome” being something a person or organization can directly influence or offer to visitors, while “belonging” is more of an internal perception of someone’s relationship to a space and how that connects to your own identity.

Welcome is critical to a good theatre experience; belonging is not. While feeling genuinely and warmly welcomed is crucial to having a positive theatre experience and a necessary pre-requisite to experiencing belonging, many said that feeling a sense of “belonging” is not necessary (or even expected) for having a good time at the theatre. Belonging is a high bar, and it’s one that’s often internally modulated – it has more to do with your own passions and interests and the alignment you see between them and an organization than the actions an organization takes. While interviewees were able to identify clear characteristics of theater experiences that contribute to feelings of welcome, that wasn’t the case for belonging because it’s not something people see as under the control of organizations. Therefore, we focus mainly on the construct of welcome, as organizations can play an active role in creating feelings of welcome among attendees.

There are four main ways that theaters can increase feelings of welcome for audiences: an informal environment, friendly staff, strong organization in the space, and not feeling alone as a minority in a space.

  • A casual environment supports a sense of welcome by helping people feel comfortable being themselves. Interviewees shared that this casual vibe was easier to find in smaller, more intimate theatres. Spaces that made people feel unwelcome were often marked by perceived “stuffiness,” intense formality, or a dress code. Moreover, formality is associated with economic and racial privilege, as characteristics like dress are related to race and class signifiers.
  • Not surprisingly, friendly staff are also critical in building feelings of welcome. An attender shared that they feel recognized and valued as individuals when they receive eye contact, a smile, a kind greeting, and when they’re offered genuine help. On the other hand, people said that feeling rushed, like a part of a “cattle call,” or treated as a faceless person in a crowd contributed to not feeling welcome.
  • Additionally, a smooth process in an organized space supports feeling welcome, as it shows that thought, care, and consideration were put into shaping the visitor experience. We heard that attenders don’t want to look out of place – and that having to ask for help or direction can be embarrassing or uncomfortable.
  • Lastly, also seeing people like you—meaning other Black and Latinx people for these interviewees—in stories and actors on the stage, in the audience, and among the staff helps foster feelings of welcome. Being in a space where only (or mostly) one type of person (typically white) is visible can signal to Black and Latinx theatregoers that they are not valued, the performances aren’t for them, and that they do not fit in.

Given that this is a study for an organization, we focused on what role organizations can play in nurturing welcome among attendees. Interestingly, we heard that welcome can also contribute to belonging, yet belonging is also supported by duration of relationship, embeddedness in community, and alignment with personal interests or passions.

Wolpert and Torres reflected on these results and discussed how they plan to move forward, “We were very interested to learn how intertwined identity is with a sense of welcome and belonging among Black/African American and Hispanic/Latinx audiences—that because of that, folx have often not felt welcome and have learned not to expect to feel real “belonging” in theatres. Belonging will take time and trust to build, through listening and learning. We plan to build upon our community at the Center with these insights: this affirms the value and investment of resources towards hearing directly from our audiences to create a better sense of welcoming, and the Signature Ticket Initiative, which aims to lower financial access barriers. Doubling down on core values of community and access, we will work to welcome more audiences who haven’t always felt welcome at cultural institutions through community engagement and audience development.”

We would love to hear if these building blocks of welcome resonate with you and your experiences as attendees or even as organizational staff? Are there any other points that you think contribute to feeling welcome, especially if you identify as Black or Latinx, in a space like a theatre? Moreover, here at Slover Linett, we are working on a forthcoming national report that explores the themes of welcome and belonging among a national sample of Black people more broadly. Stay tuned for that as well!

 

Photo credit: Exterior of Signature Theatre by David Sundberg, courtesy www.signaturetheatre.org.

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