Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Monday, October 18, 2010

From the road: conversations about intrinsic impact, part 1

For the past couple of weeks, I've gotten to travel to five of the six cities that are taking part in our big intrinsic impact study, and it's been a truly fascinating process. As a part of this work, we are sitting down with the artistic, marketing and management staff of each of the participating theaters for two hours to talk through the survey protocol and, more generally, to talk about where research, and specifically research about audience feedback, falls into the artistic selection process. Boy, do responses vary.

In some cases, the staff seem to have a healthy conversation going with their audiences, creating what researcher Alan Brown, who is conducting the study via his firm WolfBrown, calls a "feedback loop." In other cases, the response seems muddy, and often indicates that the internal conversation about this question hasn't yet happened - or at least that a coherent consensus hasn't yet been reached. And then there are the companies that have a very clear view of things, and that view is that audience feedback sits nowhere near artistic selection.

I don't know that there is a right answer here, although coming at it from a marketing point of view I see some real downsides to not at least taking audience feedback, especially the type of "intrinsic effects" feedback we are talking about in this study, into account at all. After one of the meetings, Alan talked to me about how he is fascinated by those maverick artistic directors who don't really engage in a conversation with their audiences, but manage to succeed (sometimes fabulously). Artists like that exist, and their existence is fantastic - they are able to build experiences that audiences don't even know they want. These people remind me of visual artists like Pollock, Picasso and Van Gogh, who created from their own vision, and who managed to tap into the public's vision over time.

What is hard for me is that it seems clear that for every Van Gogh, there are thousands of artists out there who don't quite hit the zeitgeist, but think they will. When you loop it back to theatre, these are the leaders of theatre companies who think they are thisclose to being visionaries, to creating monumental work, but are in fact creating a bunch of insulated work that isn't really connecting. Maybe these artists are aware of this problem but don't feel that changing is a valid way forward. Or (more likely, I think) maybe these artists don't actually know whether or not their work is affecting in the ways they want it to be.

Ultimately, of course, the work becomes unsustainable if no one will pay to see it. But what if incorporating just a little hat tip to the audience's emotional, intellectual and social connection - seeing how, as we will be able to do with this intrinsic impact study, the audience's experience matches up against the goals of what theatre companies want them to experience - could shift that trajectory and make that many more successful pieces, that many more affecting experiences?

I'm interested in hearing how the conversation evolves over the year, and discovering who uses this information and how. We are prepared for some companies to simply set these results on a shelf and never look at them, though we hope that won't be the case. But even if in the end the leaders of a company decide that this type of work isn't their cup of tea, hopefully they'll figure out why they are resistant, and what the perceived threat is, and how real it is. That's a conversation, and in this case, that's success.

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