Key Informant Interview
The Civic Theater – Kalamazoo, Michigan
Conducted by Karen Russon, Evaluation Capacity Development Group (ECDG), as part of the project “Building the Evaluation Capacity of Kalamazoo’s Culture and Arts Organizations” 2007
The Civic Theater has a progressive history of quality theatre. In 1945, an intern program was created. It was the first of its kind in the nation. It currently maintains an internship program with seven interns in six disciplines. The Civic was the first community theatre in the nation to present Raisin in the Sun in 1960.
The Civic has performances in both the Civic Theater and Parish Theater that was completed in 1998. The Carver Center houses the design offices, rehearsal and shop space. The Civic holds youth theater classes and camps. Its extensive volunteer program of ushers, actors, backstage crew, and ticket office support includes over 1,100 volunteers.
Within the Civic value statement, volunteers are said to be “the heart of our work; without their involvement, we would not exist”. Their other values include: having a commitment to continuous quality improvement and inclusiveness; treating patrons and donors with respect and courtesy; treating paid staff as professionals; and supporting the field of community theatre and the community in which they live and work.
The Civic Theater brings quality theatre to Kalamazoo through its strong leadership. Kristen Chesak has been Managing Director of the Civic Theater for the past 2 years. She has been with the Civic for 13 years and has a background in theater. Morrie Enders, Artistic Director, has been with the Civic for 1-1/2 years, Helayne Smith, Business Manager, has been at the Civic for 8 years. Ben Zylman, Marketing Director, has been with the Civic for 9 years. And Preston Misner, Director of Volunteers, has been with the Civic for 8 years.
The annual budget for the Civic Theater is $1.9 million. There are 34 employees: 26 full-time and 8 part-time. There are 1,100 volunteers and 19 board members who meet once per month over ten months. For a civic theater, the organization is large in terms of budget and staff. It has been able to maintain its high level of quality from volunteers to staff to programming through an extensive ongoing evaluation system.
Marketing is a critical area where evaluation is keenly utilized. The Civic evaluates sales for season subscribers, productions, special events, and classes. This is viewed as an important tracking mechanism. An order form is included in the newsletter as well as a letter to subscribers. The newspaper ads were not found to be effective so were restructured. There is a computerized ticketing mechanism. The way a show sells influences the determination of future media emphasis.
The season selection is not just about money. Certain shows are book ended with lower attendance shows in the middle. The following criteria is used to determine shows: how well it fits into the mission of the Civic; the variety of offerings; challenges for actors/musicians/backstage; variety of communities served; and old vs. new offerings.
Informal feedback is obtained through a variety of sources within the Civic. For example, the production stage manager evaluates through observation and conversation. Guest directors also provide feedback. Audience feedback is very important. The Civic audience is very vocal. Civic staff stand in the lobby to obtain informal feedback from its patrons. The curtain speech at the beginning of the show puts a face to the organization so patrons can freely identify who are Civic representatives at intermission and the conclusion of the performance. The staff make themselves visible and accessible.
Financial evaluation is also utilized. For budgeting, all department heads review the budget on a monthly basis to see if it is realistic and on track. The budget is subsequently reviewed at the end of the year. The process pulls from everyone. Based on the feedback obtained, marketing strategies are altered. They may increase TV ads, add a class, and reduce the cost of the set. Possible adjustments may be required such as the case for expensive lumber in order to stay on budget. There is a constant evaluation of vendors. Changes have been made to the phone company, cleaning and other services. The Civic trades sponsorship for services such as carpet cleaning by running an ad for them in the program or recognize them as a production sponsor. The Civic is able to re-estimate numbers through this process by the end of the year for the board.
Systems evaluations occur with the current box office software. The benefit package for staff with health insurance is evaluated yearly.
Staff evaluations are conducted by supervisors and staff evaluate supervisors as well. Supervisors review/update job descriptions and have an annual employee review for wage and benefits. Employees evaluate their supervisor through a goal sheet. Only Kristen sees this document. The board gets an overall view of the results. There are many meetings between employees and supervisors. A formal evaluation looks ahead to goals for next year and styles to improve upon.
Customer service/patron evaluation is important to the Civic. There is an emphasis on the box office as the face of the Civic. There are weekly discussions and sometimes daily conversations. Staff and volunteers are both utilized in the box office. They discuss how to handle diverse scenarios that may arise and provide service in a positive manner. Formal policies are in place to help with situations. There is an emphasis on being flexible and proactive as issues will arise which are not in a manual.
Volunteer evaluations are also used. Staff must be flexible in how they evaluate volunteers. It is important to track data but also be conscious of the integrity of the data that is tracked. Try to be accurate. Volunteers are there for different reasons with different skills. There is a volunteer participation contract which is the baseline of expectations. The contract delineates what is to be evaluated at the outset. At the first meeting, staff and volunteers go over policies and procedures. The music director goes over policies. There is a design presentation for volunteers by the costume designer.
The Civic monitors programming to catch problems early. An example of this is when a cast of seven had several members consistently late. Staff intervened to consider a better rehearsal schedule that would result in getting the cast there on time.
Tracking is very important for getting the right information at the Civic. Data is improved when it is effectively tracked. The Civic performs meta-evaluation (evaluating the evaluation tool and how the data was tracked). They take into account what they want to know. Tracking allows them to go back and look at the data in a different way. Data utilization is a moving target. They may read an evaluation after it is completed and then want to change the question. They evaluate for one segment without historical consideration. Volunteer feedback is important to this process. They are familiar with the history of events and individuals.
One area of tracking is in the senior readers program. Evaluation of the data led to the decision to change the time of rehearsals from 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm because volunteers were working and couldn’t arrive at that time. They considered how many were working and the age of volunteers.
Instant Replay is an evaluation instrument that is used with volunteer crews and performers for auditions and behind the scenes. Volunteers are ask if they had fun and use a rating scale to rate their experience. This is tabulated and reported to the managing and artistic director to determine how to improve the volunteer experience by looking at what worked. It is not ego-based. It was emphasized that there is a difference between an appropriate reward structure that the Civic has established and a sense of entitlement that is sometimes felt by volunteers.
Paperwork increases with evaluation and contracts. It is a personality business. The stage manager, a volunteer, and director must work well together. Is must be a good fit with personality and style. The Civic needs to plot this in advance. There is a pool of stage managers. Exit interviews are done with the stage manager and stage manager assistant. The addition of new volunteers is important as well as the continuity of volunteers from kids up to adults. Challenges come with personality-based evaluation being subjective. There is a personal craft to choosing a stage manager. The Civic tries to improve the process to eliminate some of the subjectivity.
Evaluation is needed for fiscal responsibility, for the volunteer experience, as well as to determine the type of person or profile of Civic volunteers. There is a subjective evaluation of plays as well as the technical challenges with the cast. Plays may be judged good/bad. The directing pool and stage management are evaluated – it is a subjective exercise as is the casting of the play. Decisions are instinctive.
A survey revealed a perceived need in the community for extracurricular programs. The survey showed kids and parents both wanted technical classes for youth but it wasn’t supported with participants.
Evaluation is also used for grant writing. Measuring the added value of theater is challenging. How to quantify this? By being anecdotal and showing numbers. The Civic leadership has grappled with this common dilemma seen within the arts community. The Civic sees a need to streamline their processes in order to answer this for efficiently.
In terms of what success looks like, it depends on who is defining it. It may be about filling seats. However, seats may not be filled but the cast did a great job with a demanding script or the degree of creativity expressed may be outstanding. A performance may be considered successful if it is judged to be well-acted or well-directed.
The Civic places an emphasis on the importance of transparency, flexibility, data collection and trust. The organization has created an environment accepting imperfection. Those at the Civic don’t take criticism personally and have a healthy sense of self-worth. They keep the big picture and what is best for the organization front and center.
Because of ongoing programming and fiscal monitoring, the Civic is able to stay nimble and respond to concerns that may arise. If material costs make an unexpected surge, management is able to make adjustments rather than wait for end-of-year program reviews. This includes monitoring the cost of lumber as well as vendor services. Carefully monitoring box office activities ensures quality customer service.
Informal feedback is a valuable tool for obtaining an immediate sense of audience satisfaction. Conversing with and listening to comments by attendees can provide a valuable insight into their experience. This can allow for small adjustments in upcoming performances that will enhance future audience’s theatre experience. Formal feedback mechanisms such as the Instant Replay survey are important to monitor the large volunteer pool and be attuned to this critical segment of the Civic.
One area in which additional learning could yield rewards pertains to the scope of audience members. Are performances frequented by the same pool of patrons or is marketing successfully expanding the range of new attendees? Though monitoring and evaluation of internal functions is strong, it is not apparent that much research is occurring to identify the segment of the public not attending the Civic. It would be interesting to consider a needs assessment to see if there are needs not being met in the community.
Personnel performance appraisals have been designed so that feedback is encouraged both top-down and bottom-up. Having an atmosphere of trust and transparency, as emphasized in the Civic, can allow the staff to view the process as one of improving and learning rather than intimidating and threatening.
Though there was extensive discussion of the role of evaluation within the management of the Civic, it did not include any discussion of the role of evaluation at the board level. An attempt was made to contact the board president to obtain additional information, but the interviewer was unsuccessful in receiving a response.