Changing Perceptions: Refocusing The Old Globe

“You have to invest as much in them as you are asking them to invest in you,” said Eric Keen-Louie, Associate Artistic Director.  “I go to their meetings. I make a point to be a part of their activities.”

At Theatre Forward, we work collectively with our member theatres on our new initiative to address Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), the need for theatres to go back to their founding principles as community based institutions has become more and more apparent. Our Executive Director Bruce E. Whitacre has spent the summer connecting with colleagues and visiting our theatres around the country, including spending time at Trinity Rep to explore their growing Latino initiatives, as we prepare to launch our new program.

He recently returned from The Old Globe in San Diego, which is undergoing a massive reinvestment in their community roots. The Old Globe began as an amateur company during the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935 before converting to a professional company in 1981, and is still situated among many museums and cultural centers in the sprawling Balboa Park.  It has launched historic shows such as Into the Woods and The Full Monty, and its annual centerpiece is Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, created by special arrangement with the nearby Geisel estate. By the mid 2010’s, the Globe audience was like many in major cultural institutions: older, whiter, more upscale than the surrounding San Diego community, which had evolved rapidly into a diverse, dynamic major city.

Barry Edelstein, the Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director, arrived in 2012 from the Public Theater in New York with a vision to address this situation.  Artistically, he began further diversifying casting, the composition of creative teams (writer, director and designers), and of course, programming.

With significant, multi-year support of The James Irvine Foundation, he also laid the groundwork for a wide-ranging community engagement initiative anchored by “Globe for All,” a touring program that brings Shakespeare plays to dozens of community centers, prisons, schools and other venues throughout San Diego County.

Initial efforts were led by Eric Keen-Louie, now Associate Artistic Director.  It was challenging at first; prior efforts by the Globe had been one-offs, and communities were leery of re-engaging.  “You have to invest as much in them as you are asking them to invest in you,” Eric said.  “I go to their meetings. I make a point to be a part of their activities.” The Old Globe has also continued to add elements on the artistic side as well. One example is a growing focus on developing acting talent within the San Diego community.

A couple of years after Barry arrived, an Arts Engagement department was established and Freedome Bradley-Ballentine, Director, expanded and deepened the program. A wide range of exercises and techniques are used to reach people in conjunction with Globe for All tours. “Two thousand people attended swing dancing on our plaza,” Freedome said.  “Our business isn’t exclusively to produce theatre. As a 501(c)3 organization, we have a responsibility to be in service to our community. The programs we create serve the public good. They improve the quality of life in our community. Producing theatre is just one of the ways we impact our community.”

Rosemary White-Pope of the Fourth District Seniors Resource Center recently said, “This partnership with the Globe is the best thing since sliced bread. We support each other, we come out for each other, and that sends a message of inclusivity.”

“We’re inviting people to come here, often for free, to have a great time,” Freedome says.  “And we’re not asking for anything in return.”

Nonetheless, the theatre is exploring ways to assess how people come to the Globe. The Globe’s Arts Engagement programs are currently being evaluated, but there is no apparent connection between a touring production or a free event and an eventual ticket purchase or subscription. That is not why the Globe does Arts Engagement.

But the connection between this work and sustaining the Globe is very clear to Director of Development Llewellyn Crain.  When faced with a threatened major cut to City of San Diego arts and cultural funding this year, the Globe was able to demonstrate to Council members and the Mayor the impact of its programs and activities on constituents throughout the city.

“Hundreds of audience members completed simple surveys about the value of the arts. Each councilmember and the Mayor received copies of the surveys from their constituents,” Llewellyn said.

Globe for All and the other engagement activities helped galvanize community support, and through a coordinated advocacy effort by arts and cultural organizations, with the Globe taking a leadership role, funding cutbacks were largely averted.

There are many threads to this story: a major American theatre engages with its neighbors, and reaches into many underserved communities; restoring its community based artistic roots through more local casting, increasing diversity of creative teams (writers, designers, and directors) and casts; shifting focus to art as a means of community inclusiveness.  It has taken a major investment in staff and resources to come this far.  The Irvine Foundation funding behind all this will expire in a few years and will need to be replaced.

When walking through Balboa Park colonnades teeming with diverse people enjoying the galleries, restaurants and gardens, you see the potential and the challenge the Old Globe faces.  Theatre can be expensive; it happens at set times and lasts for hours; you have to travel to get there; you may not know what to expect or what to do when you’re there. You may not know anyone who has ever even gone to theatre.

How does a theatre overcome all these barriers?

The Old Globe is answering this question one person at a time by going back to where it started: engaging individuals where they are in a celebration of something that matters to them: dancing, writing, discussing, sharing.  Tickets and subscriptions may or may not follow, but the investment has already begun to yield rewards in changed perceptions, both in the communities the Globe needs to include, and among civic leadership.