The Sheldon Theatre: Becoming Unforgettable

Unforgettable. That’s the feeling Red Wing’s Sheldon Theatre wants for their community. In fact they’re so committed to that concept, they’ve embraced unforgettable as their tagline – referencing that above all else, their theater is a place for people to come together and make memories.

To learn more about what it means to be unforgettable, we interviewed Executive Director Bonnie Schock about the Sheldon’s approach to audience experience, how they’re helping people make memories, and where they’re headed next.

Where did the “Unforgettable” tagline come from?

"Red Wing is a manufacturing town. As we thought about what we make, it was just very clear. We manufacture memories and great experiences…[attending a Creating Connection workshop and hearing the messages] reinforced that for us and influenced how much we are leaning into that.”

What does it mean to you to bring people together to make memories?

“We are trying to cater to the longing people have to be in community together…We are just trying to honor people's presence in our space. I think it is ALL about shifting our emphasis to put the patron and community first. As a presenter, our role is to gather people. That’s what we do. We provide the right place and the right environment. I totally believe it too. In this kind of world where we are so incredibly divided and people's presence on social media is so toxic and confrontational, places for gathering together to share something that matters is invaluable and people are seeking it. They want and need that…The energy from people is palpable…”

Last spring, you attended a Creating Connection workshop, which you’ve said helped to reinforce some of these concepts. What did you explore at the workshop?

“We had opportunities to brainstorm and one of the things that came out of that for program shifts was to increase the number and visibility of outreach and education. We have been trying to push that to the forefront…and doing more of it since.

For instance the previous brochures had shown a photo of the artist bowing towards the audience experiencing it. The whole notion of turning the messaging lens onto the user/patron is now at play for us

We also started to ask how we build experiences that are more than transactional. We were brainstorming in that session and trying to carry that forward. How do we add on to an experience and offer extreme hospitality. That is what has built a number of events. Our season launch party was where the photo booth came in. We shaped the whole afternoon as something memorable and special for people…. Another example is a memory board in the lobby at a pre-show party, where people were asked to post when they first saw the band they were there to see that night”

What impact is this approach having on your organization?

Here is an unsolicited email from a first-time patron which underscores just how important the little touches that create connection really are:

“OK GO was awesome!!! Thank you. The band was awesome, the theater was awesome, and the cute little town with free parking was awesome. But what I wanted to write to you about, as I am looking over all of the pictures from that night, was how much fun you all made this evening for everyone. The VIP party really made it special for us since we flew up there from Indiana. Overall it was a wonderful advertisement for Red Wing. You obviously have a very special community there and you represented it well. Your theater is a valuable gem in that little jewel box of a town. Thank you for a beautiful lifelong memory for me, my husband and my friends. Bravo!”

By the Numbers

“Our social media is driving 35 percent of our traffic to our site which is a change for us. And if you take a look at our website at the annual report you will see how well we have been doing financially… We have held our core [audience] and seen that grow. We have seen a modest increase in local attendance and a huge increase in our regional attendance. We are drawing more people to us and we have maintained and deepened our immediate Red Wing community.”

Cultivating Community Ownership

In addition to being a presenter, Sheldon is supporting local producers and providing them with a home. They have a resident community theater and band, support local dance schools, and maintain producing partnerships with many area arts initiatives. They have intentionally fostered the Sheldon as a place where people make stuff together. The relationships that people build together on stage and off are invaluable because of the ownership that people develop. And Executive Director Bonnie Schock credits these efforts at fostering connection for Sheldon’s recent financial success.

Your Turn

Applying the Creating Connection framework is easy! Download tools that help you think about your organization as a place to make and share memories.

Images courtesy of the Sheldon Theatre