The Beauty of the Buddy System

Joe Patti is director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Performing Arts at Shawnees State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. He’s also a self-described evangelist for Creating Connection, and an all-around creative and engaging voice in building experiences and programs that help communities find new ways to connect through creativity.  In 2015, Joe experimented with an Arts Buddy program at his theater, and in the interest of sharing this good idea with all of you, we decided to interview Joe about why he created the program, how it’s going, and where else we can find such inspiration.

So, why did you create the Arts Buddy program?

When people are asked what things prevent them from participating in an arts or cultural experience, the lack of a companion with whom to share the experience ranks in the top five barriers. (NB: Joe’s spot on, read more about those barriers in our research.)

Where did you get the idea? And how does it work?

We were inspired by a video about a bus company in Brazil which specifically reserves seats for riders who want to meet new people and provides conversation starters on Post-It notes,  so we created an Arts Buddy program.

We set aside some decent seats throughout the theater and started mentioning in press releases, emails and on social media that we would connect individuals without a companion. If there were an odd number of participants who signed up, I would serve as a companion for the event.

As an introvert, I love that you offer some conversation starters for new buddies. Can you tell me more about what those look like?

One challenge was actually designing a way to attach a folder full of conversations starters to the theater seats in front of the designated seats in a manner that couldn’t easily be knocked loose by passersby and didn’t jab into the back of the person occupying the seat to which it was affixed. It may have been easier to give each participant a stack of cards with conversation prompts at the box office, but we wanted something that would attract attention to the program.

Since we hope people will cultivate an ongoing relationship, the conversation starters don’t just focus on our organization and events. Some of the questions ask about experiences at other organizations in the community or a favorite mural painted on the floodwall and buildings around town.  

There are fun trivia questions and plain general questions about what people like to do so they don’t feel obligated to talk about arts and culture. We also make the conversation prompts available to all event attendees who want to join the fun.

Nice. Any early impressions on how it’s going?

We have had a few people participate in the program. One unanticipated result of the effort is that I have been asked to accompany people to events at other organizations they hadn’t really visited before.

If another venue wanted to replicate this idea, what would you tell them?

There is a wide range of opportunities for creative industry groups of all types to put their own characteristic spin on this idea. A production company in Toronto set up 1200 people on what they billed the world’s largest blind date for a performance of the musical Once. 

A coffee house in NYC turns off the Wifi and encourages people to interact by offering placards you can put on your table with prompts like “Ask me about…My entrance song if I were a professional wrestler.”

As was mentioned on Creating Connection, there is a phone app in the Netherlands that matches individuals looking for someone with whom to wander museum galleries. A program doesn’t have to be that high-tech. A bench or lounge where people can wait for others interested in visual art is all it takes.

Thanks, Joe! And please, keep up the good ideas and the generous sharing on Inside the Arts