The Orchestra Breaking All The Rules


When ArtsHub first meets ROCO chamber orchestra Founder and Artistic Director Alecia Lawyer over the Zoom screen (ArtsHub in Australia, Lawyer in Houston, Texas), it’s clear this Juilliard-trained oboist and arts entrepreneur takes a disciplined, yet joyful approach to what she does.

‘We’re all about making “human-first” decisions,’ she beams into the camera.

‘Of course the art is very important as well,’ she adds. ‘But the people who make the art and the people who experience it, are at the core of our vision.’

As Lawyer describes her award-winning not-for-profit arts company, it’s clear the ways ROCO goes against the standard rules of arts programming are almost too numerous to count.

Read: When you need to change to get it right

For a start, ROCO’s concerts are played with the houselights up, and audiences are encouraged to politely use their devices/smartphones in the theatre if they wish.

Multigenerational audiences are also welcomed with open arms where they can rub shoulders at “Brass and Beer” nights or “Parents’ Nights Out” concerts that pop up at both traditional and non-traditional performance spaces all over Houston.

These novel approaches have allowed this maverick company to chart an enviable path in the US arts scene as a small-to-medium outfit that punches well above its weight, especially when it comes to artist diversity and audience reach.

So, how exactly has it achieved this?

According to Lawyer, ROCO’s success has come down to a few key strategies that follow a “people first” philosophy (read on for more top tips).

Strategy 1: Energise the arts experience

Within the US arts sector, ROCO is described as an “arts disruptor” and a trailblazer. But to its audiences it is better known as “the most fun you can have with serious music” – which is both a cute slogan and a clue to one of the company’s most successful rule-breaking plays.

As Lawyer explains, ‘Traditionally, you see orchestra musicians performing in formal black dress. But at ROCO… no, we are the opposite.

‘We want our musicians to show their personalities and bring high energy to the stage.

‘We want to have a performance full of colour and fill our stage with fancy, fun and bright clothes to celebrate our audience,’ she says.

This high-energy approach is another one of the company’s key strengths, and is on full display at many moments during the Zoom interview when Lawyer’s passion for the musicians with whom she performs feels as though it could burst right through the screen.

These enduring energies are no doubt what helps the company secure an impressive 95% of its funding through philanthropic sources alone.

‘I think I’ve sat down for a coffee with almost every person in Houston,’ Lawyer laughs.

‘I am also told I am a natural born salesperson,’ she adds. ‘When I first moved to Houston and bought my first car here, the car dealership actually offered me a job on the spot.’

Clearly, this is an arts leader who knows how to convert people to her vision and keep attracting strong financial support to her cause. Importantly, ROCO’s high level of philanthropy is why the company can offer many of its concert tickets on a Pay-What-You-Wish basis, which is another of its distinctive qualities that others find hard to match.

Strategy 2: Personalise your offering

One quality that has allowed this company to stand out from the pack is its meticulous focus on its audiences’ needs.

Unlike other high art form companies, where the art comes at the expense of everything else, ROCO is not shy about prioritising the so-called background elements of its shows to maximise accessibility and convenience for its audiences.

This includes shaking up one of theatre’s most notorious “do not remove” elements – the traditional 7:30pm show start time.

‘Our 5pm Saturday night shows are very important for us,’ Lawyer explains. ‘Based on the feedback from audiences, it’s the perfect time for people to see our show and then go and get something to eat afterwards. We fit into people’s lives.’

And for parents with small children who may still struggle to attend, ROCO has found a neat solution.

‘One of the churches we play in holds these great “Parents’ Night Out” events, so when I founded ROCO and had young kids myself, I thought, why can’t we do that with the orchestra?’ Lawyer tells ArtsHub.

‘So, when we play a concert at that particular church, we use what they have already set up.

‘It means parents can drop off their kids with child carers at the venue before the show and, while they watch the concert, the kids have a music lesson and are invited into the concert hall in the balcony, in a space reserved for them to hear one piece sometime during the performance. They then stay for pizza and movies.’

Lawyer says what’s nice about these opportunities is that parents get a proper date night, but the whole family has still shared an arts experience that they can talk about after the show.

She says the “Parents’ Night Out” concept has been so successful, she would like to take it to other venues in future. ‘But the [childcare] insurance would be expensive, so that would be something we would need to plan for,’ she notes.

Strategy 3:  Be future-focused and fit for purpose

ROCO’s multigenerational appeal continues through another innovative strategy which, like its “Parents Night’ Out” and 5pm Saturday night start times, democratises the arts experience and meets audiences where they are.

The company’s ROCO on the Go initiative takes recordings of its live concerts to public and community hotspots throughout its home city for live streaming via a simple QR code.

As Lawyer explains, ‘This initiative started during COVID when I realised we had thousands of musical tracks recorded that we had up on our Listening Room and on all streaming channels, knowing people needed to be outside and were looking for activities.

‘Then I thought, we have this byway in Houston that runs through the whole city, which is really pretty – it has walking trails and public art all along it.

‘So I asked the Buffalo Bayou Park [in Houston] if we could post our QR codes to our music along the trail, and they agreed. So that became the first ROCO on the Go spot, but now our signs are in 35 different spots around the city, because people have just gone crazy for it, and it will be in trails in Utah soon, too.

Read: Art blooms in unexpected public places

‘Also, most recently, our “Joyful”, “Bold” and “Soothing” playlists have been made available in Texas oncology departments where people who are getting chemotherapy infusions for six hours a day can access the music via QR-coded cards while they are there,’ she adds.

Clearly, this company’s relentless drive to expand the ways art and audiences can be brought closer together is one of its most obvious hallmarks. But, as Lawyer sees it, her mission is ultimately based on a far simpler philosophy.

‘Connection is my drug,’ she says.

‘I mean, we take what we do very seriously in terms of the music we present and the composers and musicians we work with. But, at the same time, it’s important for me that our musicians can bring the messiness of human life onto the stage and be themselves, and I think our audiences connect strongly with that kind of vulnerability and that’s a big part of why they keep coming,’ she concludes.



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