5+1 Questions For Alli Houseworth of Method 121

March 17, 2016

While studying Theatre Management and Producing at Columbia, Alli Houseworth ’10, became fascinated with audience engagement. “I didn’t understand why there was such a gap between how the arts treat audiences and how companies like Amazon, Zappos, Netflix, etc., treat theirs,” she recalled. “Why are audiences not the absolute center of everything we do in the arts?” After graduation, she tried her hand at few jobs working at New York theatres, but eventually Houseworth quit (“with no savings and no business plan”) to start Method 121, a brand management and marketing company that caters to some of the most cutting-edge theatre companies.

What does Method 121 do for theatre companies? How do you explain brand management and digital strategy to people who don't know a lot about it?

I work with arts organizations who already know it’s important to connect with their audiences in new ways, and who are curious about using technology to do so. Oftentimes they are stuck and need some help setting up a program or campaign, and some training in how to sustain it in the long term. This can be anything from building audiences on various social media platforms, creating social media-based marketing campaigns, training staff on how to use technology (websites, email, social) to better connect with their audiences, or creating large-scale digital lobby installations.

Currently I’m working with a very large theatre in Birmingham, England, on implementing a digital lobby engagement design I’ve created for them. The theatre—Birmingham Repertory Theatre—has wanted to liven up their lobby space for quite some time and have a mission to connect with the very diverse audiences in Birmingham. Interestingly, Birmingham has a history of being a manufacturing city, so they view producing theatre as a form of manufacturing itself. The Rep is centrally located—literally attached to the public library, so they have a lot of foot traffic—but most people who pass through the building don’t know what actually happens in the space.

I’ve created a plan wherein which we’ll buy various pieces of tech—such as touch screens, iPads, laptops, etc.—and create content for each of those pieces that shows passersby what happens “behind the walls.” It is an incredible thing to watch someone’s face when they see the backstage of a theatre for the first time. Not everyone gets the privilege to go backstage, so my hope is that, by revealing what is literally manufactured inside the walls of this building, passersby will become curious about the theatre, want to learn more, and eventually buy tickets.

Why is this kind of audience development important for theatres?

For years now, theatres have always wanted to “engage younger audiences” and these days “young” people are digital natives. I put “young” in quotes here because I’m not talking just about teenagers. Those of us in our 30s and 40s are digital natives too. I mean, at this point my mom is more excited about Facebook than I am!

Tools like Facebook, Twitter, computers, mobile devices are very comfortable to us, and we use them daily. We’re also of a generation that relies very much on word of mouth to make our purchasing decisions, and we can easily sniff out false information. Digital technology spreads the word quickly and allows audiences to easily find for what they’re searching for. In addition to the marketing power of technology, why should the digital experience stop when you enter an arts venue? How can we bring technology into the space to help us better connect with audiences? Digital platforms are the perfect platforms to spread the word about what you’re producing, engage with audiences in real time and show them the artistic behind-the-scenes making of our craft, which is so fascinating.

How did your time at Columbia School of the Arts prepare you for this endeavor? Was there any particular class or professor that sparked your interest in it?

At Columbia I was given the space and encouragement to dive deep into my curiosity. I learned the business of producing commercial theatre, and there seemed to be such a disconnect between how commercial theatre (and even non-profits) treat their audiences and how our modern-day big retail companies (such as Amazon, Netflix, Zappos, Target, etc.) treat their audiences. I always asked: If theatre audiences are the ones that pay to see the work (and therefore pay us), then why don’t we treat them better? Why are we using antiquated ways of reaching out to them … especially when we keep saying we want to attract younger audiences? I got lots of nods and maybe even more blank stares. There were very few answers other than, “Well, baby boomers have more money and we want them to buy full-price tickets.” There’s a serious disconnect here when you start to think really big picture and really long term.

Tory Bailey, the Executive Director of the Theatre Development Fund, was most definitely my mentor in grad school. She’s a fierce lady and you only earn her respect by being a badass. As I grew into my career she was a great model for me of what it’s like to be a woman in the “C-suite.” She also has a very strong background in nonprofit theatre and commercial as well, and runs a service organization. She has a very diverse background of experience. She also loves audiences. Her breadth of experience challenged me to look at every challenge from every possible angle before coming to a solution. There are many collaborators in this work.

What do you see as the future of arts branding? Where does live performance intersect with brand strategy and the work you do?

Looking into the future, I think the most successful companies will be ones that embrace experience design. A brand is much more than a logo and an color —it’s an entire experience, one that begins as soon as someone first hears about your organization to when they return home from attending our arts event. I believe companies who embrace that way of thinking will be the most successful in the future. Live performance is simply one small element of that experience arc.

I notice you also teach. Why is that something you find important to include in your busy schedule?

I absolutely love teaching. My hope is that each person who sits through one of my classes, workshops or lectures will walk out with at least one new idea that, when implemented, will push our field further toward embracing our audiences and technology. I’m very lucky to have worked alongside some of the best people in this field who mentored me from very early on, and to have been the student of some of the best faculty in the country. It’s very important to me that I give back in the way they gave to me. You can never be too busy to inspire someone to change the world.

Anything else you would like us to know?

I’m also an audience member (the most important job!).