What is community engagement anyway? An interview

Photo credit: Mandy MacRae

Photo credit: Mandy MacRae

I’ll start out with a little disclosure statement: I’ve known Mandy MacRae for about 3 years now. I first met Mandy when she was working as the Edmonton Opera’s Education and Outreach Manager and I was the Managing Editor of Sound + Noise. Since then, Mandy has moved to the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers in the role of Manager, Community Engagement. When I found out about her new position, I became interested in just what is community engagement anyway, and how does it relate to the greater arts community? Over the course of an hour or an hour and a half, Mandy and I had a great conversation about what community engagement is, what she does to engage “the community”, and what she thinks the future of community engagement is.

What is the definition of community engagement to you?

It’s making the art form – whatever it is – accessible to the public and to new audiences. So, whether it be engaging the people who are already part of it – alumni or current subscribers – or are trying to engage new people. I think it’s about making the art form exciting in new ways. Not only for new people but for the people who have supported you for so many years – how are you going to keep them entertained and coming back? So, developing programs that reward and engage the subscribers, whether it be backstage tours or special dress rehearsal opportunities where they’re getting an exclusive look at things, or master classes in Ukrainian dance that they’ve never done before.

So, it’s not about giving away as many tickets as possible. It’s also about engaging people who will pay the full ticket price.

For some of the people who have been coming for years, it’s about making that experience even more special. We started doing free pre-show talks before Clara’s Dream, so we got the director of the folklore centre at the University of Alberta do a talk. He’s an expert in Ukrainian history and he came to rehearsals before so he talked about the choreography and all these things you wouldn’t learn on your own. I think for people who have come for years, that would add to their experience, but for kids that have never come before, free tickets work great.

What are some of your “go-to” ways of [making art accessible]?

In my mind there’s different branches to community engagement. There’s the education for young kids and then there’s the youth programs – the Opera has the Explorers and encore! that offered cheaper rates – and then there’s the seniors, and then in between that, [Edmonton Opera has] an “older” program for under 40’s. So, it’s kind of figuring out the different markets and trying to create programs for each of them.

For kids, the biggest thing is we have to apply for a lot of grant funding because Shumka hasn’t traditionally asked for corporate funding. Whereas the Opera has these longstanding relationships with companies that have given them money for different parts of the operation… At the Opera we started [providing free busing to less fortunate children] last year and we had so many kids who were so moved by the experience. At that age you hope they can go to as many things as possible and whatever they take away from that when they’re older is great.

It’s neat, the fact that you have everyone in the same room, whether they can afford it or not.

Exactly. And it’s even more fun for kids because those kid-specific performances are mainly for schools and seniors and outreach groups and so it’s like they’re watching a performance among their peers. It’s almost like it’s made for them. It’s just more fun for them than coming on a fancy night anyway. They get so into it – you can tell that they feel more at ease when they’re with young people in the audience… They can cheer, they can clap, or laugh. With adults sometimes it’s a little serious.

Photo credit: Mandy MacRae

Photo credit: Mandy MacRae

I know a large part of your job, as we’ve been talking about, is schools and outreach. How do you measure the success of what you’ve done if it takes 20 years to pay off?

It’s something that takes so many years of investment and having that corporate sponsorship because without that, usually most [arts] companies have such small outreach budgets and when times are tough that’s the first thing that gets cut. I think if we can maintain corporate support of the programs, that shows that it’s valuable in some means. And continually having that dialogue with schools and teachers and getting the feedback so you know what’s working and not working. I think being in the public eye a lot, you’re increasing familiarity with your brand and increasing awareness of your company. I think that will help a lot. I noticed a different at the Opera over a couple of years, you could tell the kids that went through some of these programs and they wanted their next grade to go too. So, those repeat customers and word spreading or good feedback. You feel like you’re doing something when they join Explorers and they say “oh I heard about you when I was in school”. That’s exciting. For Shumka it’s going to be creating more awareness around the brand. Hopefully people see it as a Canadian/Edmonton thing, rather than just a Ukrainian thing. Half the dancers aren’t even Ukrainian!

Do your corporate partners ever ask for a report about the results? What do you tell them?

When I worked at the Opera, we did have reports so you would give numbers and send them different letters from kids and photos. With Shumka when we started, I believe we had two corporate sponsorships… If all goes well, I’ll be writing reports later in the year.

Speaking of measurement, what are some of the most “successful” things you’ve done as a community outreach/ community engagement person?

That’s a tough question. I think one of the things I felt most proud about was working with our corporate sponsors [at Edmonton Opera] to add buses to the high-needs areas. We were giving away tickets, but most kids can’t even afford to spend those extra three dollars so we worked with a company to provide busing. We had one school in particular in northeast Edmonton – the whole school embraced the field trip. My boss at the time let me give out tickets to the whole school. The teacher was so fantastic, she went through the whole story of the Tales of Hoffmann with the kids and made sure all the kids and all the teachers knew what was happening. They played the music over the intercom to get the kids familiar with it, so, even though the opera was in French, the kids were so flabbergasted. At intermission, one of the main characters who was playing Olympia (the robot) came out at intermission to take pictures and sign autographs. These kids were just livid. So many of these kids are refugees or recent immigrants and they don’t ever have these opportunities because their school doesn’t have a parent-council board or anything to fundraiser so they just get the breakfast lunch but they don’t get field trips. [The teacher] said afterwards kids were carrying around their tickets and humming the music in the hallway and one kid said ‘this is the best experience of my life’.  It was an amazing experience to see how they went through that process and how the teachers made sure the kids had the most amazing time… That was probably the biggest success because it touched so many young people. I think out of those kids there will be some people that will continue to go to the arts or get involved somehow. It’s fun when you see these kids who never have these opportunities and how changed they are, having some exposure to the arts whether it’s music or dance or visual arts.

[Another success is] Edmonton Opera is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary and the community outreach strategy was to create 50 Days of Opera during the fall of 2013. It was a challenge to plan so many events in a short period (September- October 2013) with a limited budget. Most of the events were free to the public, and we tried to partner with other local organizations to reach greater audiences. It was rewarding to see participation from long-time subscribers as well as those in the public who have never seen an opera before.

Photo credit: Mandy MacRae

Photo credit: Mandy MacRae

How do others in your organization view your role? How is that different – or the same – from how others outside your organization view your role?

I think at Shumka, because it was a new role I think people were a little confused about what I would be doing. The title is a bit confusing. But I think everyone has been really welcoming so I think they see the need to grow and part of that is increasing our presence in the community and growing the company as a whole.

I think from the outside, it seems to be more of a popular thing to have community engagement and especially in the opera world. I know Seattle Opera over the last couple years invested a lot of money into their youth programs, getting schools involved – [arts] companies seem to be investing more in it. I think the Edmonton Symphony hired a director of education recently, so it seems to be a blossoming area. Maybe it’s because there’s funding for it and people are drawing towards that, but industries go through cycles so right now everyone’s challenged with ticket sales and so they’re thinking how are we going to keep those audiences coming and [community engagement] seems to be a direct link… I think it’s [also] a great way to keep alumni still connected in some ways … and to let them see the value the art form has to future areas.

Who are your role models in Edmonton or elsewhere that you think is doing a good job of engaging current or new audiences?

At the Edmonton Symphony Lucas Waldin is definitely doing a good job – I think he’s a great image for the symphony. He is so likable by kids and adults alike. He really makes the art form seem less pretentious and I think their current education stream is really interesting because they’re doing a lot of neat programming. So, I think he’s doing a good job in Edmonton and elsewhere there’s such great directors of education all over North America, especially on the west coast. They’re doing some really interesting things in Seattle and San Francisco. Time will tell if they succeed – it’ s really hard to guess now because these programs take so much time to see the repercussions of elementary kids that go through high school.

So, how do you get better? We’re talking about checking out what other people are doing, but what do you have available for professional development?

Right now it’s mainly online research. It’s always nice when you’re traveling if you can try to meet for coffee and just bounce ideas. I know for the opera world they have a conference every year called Opera America Conference where everyone meets. I don’t know if there’s anything similar for the dance world, but Shumka has a lot of really involved alumni and just hearing from them what they think is good community outreach and what they did when they were dancers. It’s kind of interesting to see if we’re still doing that or if it’s discontinued. I think it’s just trying to talk to a variety of different people and see what they perceive as valuable it gives you a good idea  – even if they’re doing something far away it’s valuable seeing what people here think of it.

I’ve [also] been lucky because Sandra [Gajic, Executive Director of the Ukranian Shumka Dancers] and Jelena Bojic at Edmonton Opera have been really great mentors. I’ve been lucky to have [mentors who are] these really strong women who value women just as much as men.

Where do you think community engagement is going and where do you hope it’s going?

I think it’s going more to an external perspective than an internal. I think in the past arts companies have programmed with a mindset that “we’re going to present this and hopefully people will buy tickets” whereas now we’re thinking “how are we going to get people to come to these events?” So, community engagement seems to be more part of the planning than it was before because people aren’t just naturally drawn to go to arts things any more. Maybe in Europe it’s more common, but here we don’t grow up going to the opera or the symphony. I went to a few shows as a kid but it wasn’t the norm. Now community engagement is more of a strategy to build audiences. [The performance] has to be something that resonates with people and that they want to go see. And if it doesn’t mean anything to your audience then why are you doing it? There’s something to be said for doing [art] for moral reasons, but at the same time it can’t just be within an organization that it resonates. It has to be bigger than that.


Check out what’s next with the Ukrainian Shumka Dancers at shumka.com.

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