What theatre can teach charities and fundraisers

Many years ago, I worked as a stage manager and I have kept my love for theatre. There are many elements to putting on a theatre production that translate brilliantly into the world of charity.

Theatre is fundamentally about emotion and story. Great performances, great scripts and great shows connect with the audience on a deep emotional level, which can make them happy or sad, elated or scared. The audience are not just objective viewers or observers but feel the drama, they engage with the characters, understand them and want to know them more. The fascination we have for performers is not because of who they are but who they pretend to be. Emotion is the heart of theatre, and surely the heart of successful fundraising too.

Directors often remind the cast to keep the story moving along – tell the story, keep the audience wanting to know what happens next, how does it end? The story’s a journey. What’s the story of a charity? Their history is rarely undramatic. Fundraisers can tell this story, with the big picture as background but the foreground needs to be about individuals, heroic people and the darkness they must defeat (whether a disease, homelessness, poverty or animal abusers). How does the story end? That’s where supporters have a role to play, they can create the happy ever after.

Working in theatre, I met so many interesting and different people. Whatever their background, whatever their personal story, we were an inclusive, friendly and welcoming bunch (or tried to be). Being different, being bold and original, defying convention made great shows and spellbinding performances. The thrill of the new, the unique synergy of the stage, connected with an audience, excited them, drew their attention. Parties were never dull in theatre. Unfortunately, the same is not always true of charities, which nowadays can feel scarcely different from the corporate world. That isn’t always a bad thing but if it means staff become too corporate in their mindset, innovation may suffer and the intensity fades of the mission that needs achieving. Surely a strong businesslike approach can work alongside original and daring thinking?

Innovation is the heart of theatre. New works, new interpretations of old work, new styles of theatre keep things fresh. Immersive theatre is a great current example that charities should heed – what better way to involve donors than giving them a proper insight into the work they’re funding? Groundbreaking ideas that make audiences and fellow artists open-mouthed and stupefied show that risks must be taken. The best shows are always the ones that break the trend, that refuse to copy or pay homage to what has gone before. Charities are often borne when someone sees a new way of dealing with an old problem, or identifies a new problem that underpins others. Never be afraid of thinking outside the box. If theatre hadn’t, we’d still be in the world of proscenium arch. Charities that break the mould get recognition, support and show the way for others to follow.

Comparing pay shows something interesting. However high up the hierarchy you are, theatres rarely pay well. You may be intelligent, skilled and professional, but your craft is a calling, not a job. Even when it becomes a job, it’s never, ever for the money. The hours are atrocious, there is no work-life balance and the working conditions (hot lights, cramped spaces, travelling from venue to venue) often verge on unbearable. But it is borne because of a belief in doing something special, and being part of a magical experience. Almost everyone who works in theatre has experienced that magic from the audience perspective first, catalysing their passion. Similar people exist in the charity sphere, but I’ve met more people just doing it as a job in the third sector than I ever did in my theatre career.

Everyone working on a show – from actor to stage manager to front of house (a range of different and highly specialised talents) – focus on one thing – audience experience. Make them gasp, cry, laugh, smile, scream… Techies might not admit it, but they love the thought of changing lives, enriching lives, making life worth living.

No theatre company is the same. There are as many variations of Shakespeare as there are theatres in the world. Test, tweak, try new things, adapt, change, revive. It’s not just that variety is the spice of life, but that lots of different people take different approaches. Those criticising charities for too much duplication need to consider whether it is truly duplication, or is it different approaches to the same problem (lots of anti-poverty charities or cancer charities, but if they take different approaches, they can all be making a positive difference, in different ways.)

There is always (hopefully) a vision. Sometimes just one person’s – the Director. Sometimes a whole company ethos (watch RSC shows, or Punchdrunk, or the Michael Grandage company) and sometimes a remarkable combination of writer and director. The secret to a successful show is the vision it strives for, to enrich the soul and heart or change people’s lives… Artistic vision drives great shows and charities should ensure they have a vision of the future that also inspires the whole organisation and its key audiences of beneficiaries and donors.

Words. The order, the choice, the tone, the emphasis. For me, the script is the single most important aspect of a show. If the script doesn’t work, all the best actors, directors and designers can’t rescue it. If the script is brilliant, it can still be spoiled by poor delivery or bad direction. In charity, the words we use to describe our work, the letters we write to our donors, making sure our beneficiaries speak for themselves, all of these are crucial to connecting with the people that matter – those we are here to help, those who support us, the volunteers and staff who deliver services and raise funds. Words matter the most because everything else depends on them.

 

 

The pause.

 

 

 

Time to think, to reflect. It’s a busy world and working for charity can be a relentless and frenzied experience. But creativity and power often lie in those moments where we stop, step outside the everyday, and take the long view. In all the hustle and bustle, we must never forget why we exist, we must keep our minds focussed on the end goal and not just the processes in which we are immersed.

INTERVAL

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