Act!vated Story Theatre

Tips for filling the Program Room at your event

Scene from The Shadow Puppets

"Bringing in the Audience" - Advice from Experienced Librarians

When our theatrical troupe presented a family program for the first time at the library in North Sacramento (CA) we discovered that it was a tiny facility, barely big enough for us to set up in, let alone accommodate an audience. Which we gather had never mattered much in the past, because there has never been much of an audience at such events at this location. When Tim Tomasik became the youth librarian a few months earlier, he was told that he'd be lucky to get a handful of kids to venture into this branch. But at our show on an April weekday, the meager seating area and standing area, and the stacks themselves, were overflowing with patrons: 53 youngsters and over 30 adults in a space you would have sworn couldn't hold that many bodies.

This wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Tim's track record in pulling in a crowd. It certainly was no surprise to us, because we'd already worked with him for several years when he was librarian at the Rancho Cordova Library (in Sacramento). It was no easy task reeling them in there, either, but Tim always managed to do it. While we were in town this time, we had a discussion with him about his modus operandi. Did he have any pointers, we wondered, that he could pass along to other librarians? He did indeed, and we thought it would be a good idea to put them in writing. We also thought it would be a good idea to ask other librarians if they had any tips to contribute. So here it is, the best of the advice that we've gleaned about audience building from librarians who have been very adept at it (with some additional observations from our own thirty-plus years' experience). If you are a children's librarian, we hope you will find something here to inspire you, something that will induce the public to push the fire code to its limits at your branch.

It is important, of course, to publicize the event in the media; yet it amazes us how many libraries don't do this. And don't assume that just hitting the major newspaper in your area will do the trick. As Pat Flitcroft at Coos Bay (OR) Library notes, "I blanket the media – all of them." And because they've become accustomed to hearing from her, they pay more attention and give her library the kind of exposure that demands the public's attention. TV coverage in particular is pure gold – IF you can find a way to get a news crew there BEFORE the performance. The trouble is they're often just interested in filming a clip of the performance itself, which will air long after the audience has come and gone. Ellen Book of Pinecrest (FL) library insists, "it's important to be able to give a one minute commercial about your library. Any more and you risk people losing interest."

We would add that we have found one of the most effective publicity tools does not involve the media at all: laminated posters that we mail out in advance to libraries where we are scheduled. They feature dynamic color photos of us and you know what they say about a picture being worth a news story, or something like that. If the performers you schedule don't supply similar materials, then consider making your own posters to promote them, if you don't already. (Large posters, not just standard size flyers.) They really are much more effective than just listing the event on a flyer or website. The Modesto (CA) Library in particular has impressed us with the large banners it makes promoting our appearances.

Peggy Northcraft of the Hannibal (MO) Free Library has another trick we like, and it always seems to help pack the house: "I design a bookmark which goes to each child and is handed out over the desk here at the Library. I use the artwork for the reading club theme and list the shows we are having. Always stress that the shows are free!”

In some towns, we've seen our programs advertised on the marquees at malls or other public places. Some community organizations are able to obtain corporate sponsorship in promoting their programs. It's a bit odd to see our name on the same banner as Pepsi, but hey, if it works, we're all for it. And in some places, we've seen flyers posted in bathrooms, where they're certain to draw attention to themselves.

John Weaver of the Livermore (CA) Library states, "flyers at local coffee shops and markets can work. One of our library managers goes to the local community association meetings and has found that to be effective. Adding parents' groups to the email list... we're always trying to think about how to reach the people who have perhaps NEVER even been to one of our three city libraries."

Lolly Greenwood of the Fayetteville (AR) Library also seems to have that objective in mind. "FPL utilizes all forms of advertising, both print and electronic. We have a summer reading commercial, use banners on our local transit buses, distribute print calendars to all schools and have them available throughout the summer, and staff booths at our local Farmer's Market Kids Day."

But there's really nothing like personal contact. Kids are more likely to become interested in attending the presentation if you tell them about it face-to-face. Many librarians have learned the value of visiting schools to tell the students about upcoming programs, and to distribute flyers to take home. Irene Wright at the Philadelphia (PA) Free Library notes, "We have a person who is hired with the same money as we use for our performers who does outreach visits to the playgrounds, camps, and daycares in our community. "Most libraries that we perform for are considerably smaller than Philadelphia (where we get excellent turnout from daycares and other groups), and may not have the additional personnel; but it is important for librarians to commit whatever time and resources they can to such outreach. Penny Peck of the San Leandro (CA) Library adds that where story programs are involved, it helps to let teachers at the school know what specific stories are being presented, so they can prepare the students and elicit some interest. Ellie Jones of SUNY-Buffalo also points out the other side of that coin: "Forming a long term relationship with a school librarian can help the public library make sure their programs meet the school needs. For example, if the school has been exploring adventure tales or the gold rush, the library can make sure to find performers that meet those needs."

Penny Peck also points out, as do other librarians, the importance of capitalizing on a built-in audience by holding the programs at regularly scheduled times. Specifically, she suggests, "hold a program at the public library on a school-day morning, and invite local classes to walk to the library for a field trip to see the program and then check out books. You can target the classes to the grades that would enjoy the program the most.”

Tim Tomasik recommends that schools be notified of these programs two weeks in advance. But the outreach to your young patrons is ongoing, he stresses. "You have to build a rapport with the kids", he says, "so that they'll be asking their parents if they can come to the library." He agrees on the importance of regular program times, adding that you can help build a following with puppets and magic shows, which are generally easy draws. Then once you have an attendance base accustomed to seeing programs at certain times on certain days, you can introduce them to programming that they otherwise might not make an effort to investigate. He further observes that morning programs are likely to bring in the stay-at-home moms, while afternoon or evening programs might draw some older siblings accompanying the little ones. Julie Rines of the Thomas Crane Library in Quincy, MA emphasizes, "Never underestimate word of mouth advertising; we regularly have people calling up to ask about programs that they have heard about from friends and family."

Not only is the scheduled time of a program important, but the location also can make a difference. Many libraries with auditoriums or meeting rooms automatically use them for children's programming, even if attendance is low. We've seen that despite the drawbacks, holding a program out in the stacks can draw a bigger audience, and the payoff is usually worth it. Patrons of all ages who might not be willing to commit themselves to walking into a room where a cultural presentation is being staged, will nonetheless watch attentively if you bring the performance to them – they may even gradually and discreetly gravitate toward the action.

The double-edged sword here is computers. They're what entice many older kids to the library in the first place, but once they have the kids in their clutches, they often won't release them. We prefer that computers be turned off during our performances, but this can't always be done. So Tim Tomasik cuts a deal: he offers the kids extra computer time if they'll forgo the machine during the time the program is in progress. Specifically, he offers two hours of computer time later in lieu of the one hour they give up. That's an offer hard to refuse. (In a similar vein of rewarding participation, John Weaver says that kids attending programs at the Livermore Library "get prize points toward prizes not just for reading, but also for attending storytimes and special events such as guest performers.")

The kids who come for the online games are likely to be older, an age group that may consider it uncool to be seen at a library show by his or her peers. But this stigma can be eliminated by having programs especially for that age group; once it becomes clear that coming to library events is cool for all ages, teens won't think so unkindly of one of their own catching some entertainment with a younger sibling. Tim Tomasik even advocates getting teens involved in promoting programs. They can be stationed outside the library, for instance, with sandwich boards announcing that a program is about to start.

In short, it's important to tap every resource you can think of. Julie Rines states that "every summer we also create a webpage especially for the summer programs. And most recently, we have begun a Facebook which we began publicizing with a fan button on the front of our homepage and an article in our June email newsletter." Facebook, and Twitter, of course, are great ways for friends to stay in touch across the country, but don't overlook such avenues as possible ways to build that rapport with your own audience or potential audience. We further suggest making the program page the default page for the computers in the children's department.

Unquestionably, building a following for library programs benefits both the library and the community in many ways. As Irene Wright notes, "increasing program attendance in Philadelphia gives children in the inner city the opportunity to see theatrical, musical and storytelling programs which their families could not afford to attend. We are helping to build a future adult audience for music and theater productions in our city." Furthermore, says Ellie Jones, "increasing program attendance gives the library something they can offer up at budget times; if they get more kids, they can argue for their budget to stay the same or increase. Finally, it creates a community center. Kids have a place that they want to be that's free (especially useful in these taxing times); parents find outside allies and resources that they know their kids can use and kids can develop emotionally."

Nancy Matos of the Miami Lakes (FL) Library, says that her attendance is good in part because "I am fortunate to work in a community that really utilizes its library. For me, the best and most important factor in a successful program is knowing your community. Talking to the people who come in and just interacting with them can give you a lot of insight on what THEY want is a very useful tool for me. We do also have evaluation forms that we hand out at the end of our programs to get feedback on the programs we present. This gives us feedback on what works and what doesn't."

Getting those numbers up is not just a matter of what you do on the day of the program or two weeks before. It's an ongoing process; and it's a fair conclusion to say that everything you do in interacting with the public is a potential feat of PR that will nudge another patron or two toward taking a risk on attending one of your presentations – and perhaps even coming back again and again. Or even, joy of joys, spreading the word.

See our Client Publicity Guide for Public Shows for resources to help spread the word for your Act!vated event.