This summer there’s been a steady stream of articles about American theaters in jeopardy, with headlines like “Theater Is in Freefall” (Washington Post) and “American Theater Is Imploding Before Our Eyes” (New York Times). Prestigious theaters around the country are pausing and terminating programs and laying off staff. Meanwhile, my theater company is booming. Out of Hand Theater has landed on a model that has tripled our income in four years while moving our neighbors to action on important issues and elevating the role of theater in our community. It’s a win for art, a win for business, and a win for our community, and I want to share it in the hopes that other arts organizations can benefit from it in this time of crisis.
Winner of The New York Times Best Theater of 2020 and the Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities 2021, Out of Hand works at the intersection of art, social justice, and civic engagement. We use the tools of theater to help create a more just world through programs that combine theater and film with information and conversation. Since 2001, we have collaborated with dozens of community partners to produce programs that combine art to open hearts, information to open minds, and conversation to process emotions and information and make a plan for action. All our programs are partnerships with community organizations, government agencies, businesses, other nonprofits, and/or schools. They take place in homes, schools, businesses, houses of worship, community centers, public spaces, and online.
Pairing theater with information and conversation leads to a culture shift towards social justice, increases visibility, and provides new income streams, making theater financially viable and increasing its community value while serving the greatest community needs.
Our Shows in Homes pair one-act plays with cocktail parties and conversations with community partners, and we typically perform in forty to fifty living rooms across Metro Atlanta each year. Shows in Homes have addressed gun violence with Moms Demand Action, mass incarceration with Georgia Justice Project, and political action with Partnership for Southern Equity. We just commissioned our next play, which will tackle Divisive Concepts legislation with the ACLU of Georgia.
Our Community Collaborations include a film-based vaccine confidence program developed with the CDC Foundation and delivered across Georgia with the Department of Public Health; a child sex trafficking prevention program for Georgia middle school students developed with the Georgia Council for the Arts, Department of Education, Attorney General’s office, Wellspring Living and Street Grace; and a project addressing HIV stigma with the CDC and Positive Impact Health Centers. We have developed Juneteenth programs for The Home Depot Foundation, EY and UPS, and short plays and films for Habitat for Humanity International, Families First, and Leadership Atlanta.
Through the Institute for Equity Activism, we build the capacity of individuals and organizations in arts activism centered with a racial equity lens. Through Creative Kids, we help close the opportunity gap for Metro Atlanta students of color and students from low-income families by providing free in-school and after-school arts education at high-poverty schools. Black and Hispanic students have less than half the access to arts education as their White peers. This matters because low-income students with arts-rich experiences are three times more likely to graduate from high school and twice as likely to earn a B.A. than other low-income students, according to four longitudinal studies.
Creative Kids is also designed to develop creativity, collaboration, communication, and confidence — skills employers say are essential for success today. The theater is a perfect vehicle for building these skills since they are the very skills needed for theater. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, Metro Atlanta kids from low-income families have among the lowest chances of upward economic mobility in the country, but providing arts education is one way to equip students with skills to help them interrupt cycles of poverty. We currently serve five schools, and this year Creative Kids will provide over 200 students with over 300 classes.
Through Equitable Dinners, we gather thousands of people each September for vital conversations on racial equity over dinner across Metro Atlanta, launched by live theater. Equitable Dinners is a partnership between Out of Hand and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, The King Center, Partnership for Southern Equity, the Mayor’s office, United Way, the Urban League, and Atlanta Public Schools, among others. Over 10,000 people have taken part in our Dinners, starting with Decatur Dinners.
The Coca-Cola Foundation and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation have provided major funding, and we have been featured in dozens of newspapers and TV news programs and appeared in The New York Times four times in 2020. During the rest of the year, Equitable Dinners provides private, paid programs to businesses, schools, and municipalities, including Coca-Cola, BlackRock, Audible, Georgia Power, Seyfarth Shaw, Google, Mercedes-Benz, UPS, EY, Bain, Veritiv, The Arbor Company, United Way, YMCA, the City of Brookhaven and Emory, providing a valuable revenue stream.
Not only are Out of Hand’s programs good for our community, they are good for our bottom line. Shows in Homes are usually our only ticketed program, so ticket sales make up only one-tenth of our revenue. Instead, as much as half of our income comes from contracts with our partners and up to a third from major grants for free programs like Equitable Dinners and Creative Kids. Out of Hand Theater is a twenty-two-year-old organization with no debt and has operated with a budgeted surplus for over a decade, maintaining four months of working capital.
Our collaborations also increase our visibility and elevate the role of art in our community, making theater a valuable and sought-after tool for advocacy, dialogue, and story-sharing. They help us reach thousands of people each year who do not usually attend the theater, serving our partners’ missions as well as our own. In addition to the awards and press, I have spoken at conferences and universities across the U.S. and abroad. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution named me one of Georgia’s Everyday Heroes in their Thanksgiving 2022 special edition, and I have taken part in Leadership Atlanta and The LINK Trip. The New York Times stated, “Ariel Fristoe wasn’t fazed. ‘It takes just a small perspective shift to use theatrical skills to create a more just world.'”
As a 2021 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology confirms, theater improves empathy and changes attitudes. Art engages emotions, making the message sticky and memorable. By pairing art with information and conversation, Out of Hand inspires understanding, empathy, and action around social justice and helps create a cultural shift toward racial and economic justice. After Equitable Dinners, over 90 percent of survey respondents feel inspired to make a change, and over 90 percent feel more connected to others. As a bonus, Out of Hand’s programs increase feelings of connectedness and social cohesion through positive, meaningful, personal interaction with strangers around the subjects that matter most, fueled by theater.
Arts leadership today requires a radical rethinking of the models our sector has relied on for the last 70 years. More than ever before, arts and entertainment are available anywhere, anytime, on any screen, for very little money. The last Survey of Public Participation in the Arts before the pandemic revealed that only 9 percent of U.S. adults attend non-musical theater, and these 9 percent are older, whiter, richer and hold more degrees than the population at large. In this environment, we must invent new reasons for people to venture out into the dark and the heat and the traffic to come to our programs. We must develop innovative programs that provide new revenue streams and make us less dependent on unpredictable individual ticket sales and contributed income.
We have big issues to address, both within our sector and in the wider world, and we need to innovate. Don’t replicate the models of the past. They are not strong enough. Push the boundaries of art, and design new models that are more equitable, more sustainable, that galvanize excitement around live arts events, and capitalize on the presence of your attendees. Create work that helps find solutions to the most pressing problems of our time. Help make the world a better, more connected place through art.