Usually Imago’s blog focuses on the female voice, women who are using their art to build and better their communities. This edition is a bit of an exception. We focus on a man who creates amazing art, but beyond that, has brought together a large, loyal online community that has contributed to an outstandingly successful crowd sourcing campaign. By artistically combining a curiosity in others, an ability to connect and ask questions, a keen ear for listening, and a talent for photographic timing and composition, this artist has gathered a whopping 11 million facebook followers and launched a best-selling book. Many of you know who and which project I am talking about –Brandon Stanton from Humans of New York (HONY), and his success asking his community for help to send the scholars of Mott Hall Bridges Academy (Brownsville, Brooklyn) on a yearly school trip to Harvard.Given the scope of Stanton’s success, I can’t help but wonder what we, as a theatre community, can learn from this about building our own communities.

Check out his indiegogo campaign HERE.

Theatre in its purest form is community – the cast, creative team, production crew and audience. It brings people together to witness and dialogue. Theatre companies try to take these ephemeral communities, the ones that come and go with every night in the theatre, and tie them together from production to production to create a loyal following who will attend every opening because they believe the conversation we encourage is valuable. But the meaning of community has tightened along with our budgets. Now we rely on our community to keep us afloat through box office sales. Big community = good ticket sales = more word-of-mouth = more ticket sales = maybe more money from foundations and granting bodies = hopefully another few shows funded…? Communities, despite our best intentions, end up being tools grown to sell tickets in the months leading up to production, and then, in comparison to our pre-show efforts, they are essentially dropped on closing night. We try to reignite our numbers later to fill seats, but without continuity, it’s an uphill battle.

We tend to focus so heavily on the dollar signs attached to each audience member that our approach becomes utilitarian at best, and as our dropping theatre sales might suggest, simply doesn’t work.

Back to Brandon Stanton. Jobless in 2010, he started moving around the U.S., creating a catalogue of people’s portraits. One of his stops, New York, was providing very fertile ground for this project. He took portraits and pinned them to an online map where others could explore their human landscape. He realized that these portraits and their accompanying stories would make a great blog. Humans of New York exploded from there. For those of you who don’t follow HONY, Stanton interviews and photographs people who catch his curiosity, and displays their stories in a beautiful, judgment free way, accompanied by their portrait. The stories he tells are touching, simple and human.

This one, for example, really tugged at my heartstrings this morning.

“I used to be a preschool teacher, but I got fired.”

“What happened?”

“Well, I decided that I wanted to have a socially conscious class. So we learned about apartheid in South Africa. Then we learned about homelessness. Then we made mother’s day cards for Trayvon Martin’s mom. And I think the principal decided that it was too much for three and four year olds, because she told me I wasn’t a ‘good fit.’ But honestly, I was just shining too bright for them. And now she’s going to see me on Humans of New York, and she’ll be sorry!”

Check out other amazing HONY posts HERE.

So how did Stanton go from posting a few portraits on the internet, to gathering 11 million followers, to raising 1,190% of a $100,000 goal ($1,180,505 to this minute, with 7 days left to go!) for the scholars of Mott Hall Bridges Academy to attend a yearly school trip to Harvard to inspire them towards pursuing higher education?

I asked my co-worker, Heather McCuen, a brain on marketing, communications and community building to share some thoughts on this matter. This is what she had to say:

HONY’s recent fundraiser is a fantastic case study in online organizing and community building. There’s a lot to be gleaned from its remarkable and immediate success, but perhaps the most important lesson for us is ‘don’t wait until you need something.’

It’s my experience that within theatre communities, we break our backs to fill the seats for our shows because we’re passionate about the work we’re creating. Why else would we do this work? But in order to survive we are constantly selling. And unfortunately, we push the hardest to reach our potential audience only when we need them. In other words, when we have tickets to sell. Often it seems that no matter how hard we try, there remains a disconnect between us and the audiences we seek. But if we’re only ever asking for something, only ever selling, what exactly is the relationship we’re building?

HONY’s success demonstrates that first (and second and third) we have to be building our communities. Before we ask for anything, we must invest in those we wish to reach. We must cultivate and listen, hold up others and share. It’s more fundamental than clever Facebook posts. Community happens one conversation at a time. One connection at a time. Engagement is about relationships – build your community and they will fill your theatre.

Community is about togetherness, about giving without the expectation to receive. In order to create this mutually beneficial relationship we must, like Heather says, ‘cultivate and listen, hold up others and share.’ In other words, we must regularly invest in dialogue with our communities in order to build them.

What HONY’s case proves is that in this millennial age of dozens of types of social media and virtual encounters, social media communities do translate into something tangible. The obvious example –1) Stanton’s followers manifested their support for his indiegogo campaign in a real, financial way. Over a $1,000,000 of realness…and 2), When Stanton took Humans of New York travelling last year, he extended an invitation in New Delhi, “For those of you in Delhi who want to say hello, I’ll be in Central Park, Connaught Place at 6pm.” You see below how yet again, the virtual becomes tangible.

HONY_New DelhiThanks to all of you who came to the meet-up in Delhi. It went about as well as a spontaneous meet-up could possibly go. Amazingly, we were able to have a pretty organized, calm speech. Until the very end, of course, when we ran from the police. Coolest part for me was when the police were looking for someone to blame for the crowd, and asked: “Who is he with?” And everyone screamed in unison:
“All of us!”

Stanton proves that social media community building doesn’t play second fiddle to the person-to-person community building. But unfortunately, we cannot just lift Stanton’s methodology. We have to ask ourselves: how do we cultivate our communities in between shows? Seeing that theatre companies are all about encouraging dialogue and building communities, we are in a perfect position to start. So today I ask our community: how do we integrate our mandates into our communities and our social media to build our audiences and encourage our mandates to resonate even louder?