Mixed Blood’s Amanda White Thietje on Radical Hospitality
Mixed Blood Theatre was founded by Jack Reuler 37 seasons ago, in 1976, with a mission to “promotes cultural pluralism and individual equality through artistic excellence, using theater to address artificial barriers that keep people from succeeding in American society”. That commitment to outreach is still central to our work at the theatre today, and continues to shape access and audience engagement efforts in every form. The notion of removing barriers is at the heart of Mixed Blood’s work.
Radical Hospitality, the no-cost admission effort that is changing the way we operate at Mixed Blood, started as a program that allowed the theatre to give away half of the seats for every performance—at no cost. The initiative came out of almost a decade of research and strategic planning around creating greater access to live theatre for Twin Cities audiences. An informal and staff-driven “strategic plan” was established in 1999-2000, and it guided operating ideals for the organization until a formal plan was introduced by the Board some years later. In pursuit of these strategic commitments, Mixed Blood built a foundation of access efforts that would support the coming decade. With the belief that who attends the theatre is at least as important as how many attend, Mixed Blood staff and Board spent these years exploring ways in which to eliminate barriers to access.
In 2009, with funding from the newly established Minnesota Legacy amendment (which allowed for an increase in state sales tax with a dedicated percentage of that increase to go to the arts) to support this research, Mixed Blood staff and Board conducted a formal strategic planning process and revisited mission, vision, and core values. Connecting mission, a vision that includes revolutionizing access, a core value of being egalitarian, and a strategic goal of developing new methods to attract and retain targeted audiences, they went in pursuit of a direct answer to the question, “What are the barriers to access for live theatre in the Twin Cities?”
That year, Mixed Blood hired a disability liaison and a Latino liaison, and a Latino Advisory Council was established. Focus groups with leaders of disability organizations were conducted. Both groups identified cost and cultural content as barriers to participation.
In 2010, at the recommendation of Artistic Director Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s Board got right to the heart of the matter and explored the idea of “free theatre,” bringing in MBA students, IT specialists, and other consultants, and ultimately unanimously endorsed the launch of what would be known as Radical Hospitality.
2011 brought a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, supported by Legacy Funds, that allowed Mixed Blood to explore, launch and analyze Radical Hospitality. Eight months of development (including research into TCG’s Free Night of Theatre, Signature’s ticket initiative, and the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park) led to Radical Hospitality’s launch.
We opened the doors on September 6th, 2011, not sure what to expect, and there was a line outside waiting for Radical Hospitality tickets. It works like this: two hours prior to show time, the Box Office releases available RH admission to anyone who walks up and requests a seat in person. Mixed Blood has committed to reserving a significant percentage of the House for no-cost admission, and as a rule we try to keep it at around 50% of the theatre’s seats. If someone wants to guarantee their admission, and not risk trying for a walk-up seat, they can reserve their seats ahead of time for a $20 fee. Starting 2 hours prior to show time, when RH admissions are opened, it is no longer possible to purchase a seat. Anyone approaching the Box Office for a ticket is given one at no cost, and asked to make a donation if they are uncomfortable accepting complementary admission. In addition to offering no-cost seats to our guests, Mixed Blood’s Disability Advisory Council advised that another major barrier to access for our guests with disabilities is transportation—as a result, Mixed Blood established a partnership with Red & White Cab in the Twin Cities to offer free round-trip cab rides to any audience members self-identifying with a disability.
While we may have been under the impression initially that Radical Hospitality was a “free ticket program”, we have since come to our senses. It has changed the way we function both internally and externally, requiring a different staff structure (instead of Marketing and Development managers, we now have a Community Outreach team), a new grassroots way of thinking about advertising and marketing, and a different way of considering guest loyalty when cost is no longer a strong incentive. It also presents an ever-evolving opportunity to learn from our non-traditional theatregoers. Over the first season of Radical Hospitality, our audience taught us that that their preferred method of contact with the theatre and its programming is not always in our space: enter Producer in Residence Jamil Jude and the Free Speech program, born out of Radical Hospitality and designed to give our audience access to Mixed Blood way beyond their time in the Firehouse. Free Speech allows audience members to share their opinions, questions, insights, accusations and suggestions publicly via Twitter, Facebook, our blog, and even on our Lobby walls.
Jamil and the staff conduct post-show Forums after every performance, and a Mixed Blood staffer live tweets these conversations to loop in anyone participating from outside the theatre. We host at least one Tweet seat night during each run—we started our first Tweet Seat night last season with Jamil and me and a friend of Jack’s who I suspect just felt sorry for us…this season, we’re filling the back row of the theatre some nights. Each Sunday matinee in the run is followed by a Salon panel discussion on specific topics curated by Jamil and various community liaisons and is open to the public.
In its first season, 47% of Radical Hospitality users were 30 or younger, 33% of them reported annual household incomes of $25,000 or less, and 30% were people of color. Following Next to Normal, the first show of our second season, 60% of Radical Hospitality users were 30 or younger, 37% of them reported an annual household income of $25,000 or less, and 30% of them were people of color.
Radical Hospitality requires just over $200,000 annually to thrive—this amount is extracted from the organizational budget for ticket income replacement, operations, fundraising and audience development efforts. We continue to seek out individual, corporate, foundation and government support. Mixed Blood also asks its supporters who are able to consider “paying it forward” by providing a seat in the theatre for someone who might not otherwise have been able to afford the experience. If our guests are not able to pay something for admission, we ask them to keep coming back to the theatre, again and again, and bring friends with them. It is Mixed Blood’s hope that in doing so, guesets will voluntarily become supporters of a vision that offers access to live theatre for everyone.
On a personal note, I believe that access to the arts is a quality of life issue: just like food, shelter and purpose, the opportunity for creative exploration is important to health. I am a proud proponent of Radical Hospitality’s spirit; I believe that in the coming seasons, we’ll have the data we need to determine whether or not in addition to allowing for greater diversity in our audiences, access to the arts creates more arts “users” in our community at large.
-Amanda White Thietje