Theater For The Future

The Art in the Business of Theater – Collaboration Tools and Technology and the Storefront Theater Movement

Connecting with the Audience

April 27, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, projects, Teachable Moments

Two experiments that can help us understand how big this task really is:

1.) Internationally reknowned playboy and violin virtuoso Joshua Bell played a trick on commuters with the Washington Post. He dressed in clothes that might be described as Wrigleyville chic and played six challenging and downright magical classical pieces “like a God” on a multi-million dollar Stradivari – all this across from an Au Bon Pain.

Only a few brave souls so much as slowed to listen, and there was uncomfortable shuffling in lieu of applause. (natch)

2.) Building Stage is developing their next production, Master Builder, publicly on their blog. The goal:

We really wanted to use the blog as part of our process, something that was integral to the creation of the work, as well as a tool for opening up our process to our growing family (company members, collaborators, audience) to witness, comment on, and influence.

After starting two weeks ago, the production team has 10 posts on a broad range of production topics, including Sound Design, Props shopping, costumes, themes and directorial concept, and of course, marketing. Comments so far from folks uninvolved with the project: 1 – an interior decorator. (that’s a good start for two weeks on a blog, no?)

We’ve been chatting at New Leaf about audience experience for a while and what we’d ideally like an audience member to take away from each experience with us and our work. Over the years we’ve cooked up a number of different methods for teasing those experiences out of them. In marketing speak, this has been about changing the positioning for our theater – getting our audience to shake up their expectations of a storefront theater by experiencing us in different and unexpected contexts – at work on our blog, on their iPods – and also about integrating each world of play into a greater “world of the company” via our mission.

Theaters actually experiment with the audience/artist relationship a lot in the hopes of drumming up new interest – but the audience is uncomfortable with unexpected contexts for our work, and often gets confused, scared off, or dismissive of innovative tactics. Audiences are smart, and they are universally agile when it comes to protecting their time and interest from the possibility of public performance by disengaging from a pitch, request, or an uninvited interaction in under 15 seconds. That’s the amount of time you have to close the deal, so if you spend it trying to close the deal, you’ve already lost.

The calculated smell of popcorn works wonders for movie theaters, for example…

This all leads me to think that saying that we “experiment” with audience interaction isn’t really accurate – this ain’t no lab we’re running. We downright gamble with pet ideas that we think will work, and are usually less than scientific about using data and controls alongside with real innovation. If we somehow learned the discipline of statistics and combined it carefully with our street performer instincts that can reengage a wary patron, we might actually take away firm knowledge and show the world something it hasn’t seen before. That ultimately means change that is slower than theaters want, but faster than marketing professionals, boards, and other suits think is possible.

I think we can all agree: it’s nice to have that great music shared on the way to work, isn’t it? Maybe that should be a more regular part of our lives.

Oh, and to the Building Stage, who is creating a fairy tale world for the Master Builder out of elements found at IKEA, may I suggest this lamp to be used as a practical, it’s worked wonders for us in the past:

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3 Comments to “Connecting with the Audience”

  1. Regarding the Building Stage and our blog…
    I have no idea how it will appeal to our audience, our how it will pull in more audience to our shows, or whether it will allow them to continue their connection with us during these closed door periods… Only time will tell.
    But it has been useful for us as a creative tool. To enchange ideas outside of the rehearsal room, keep in touch about what we’re all individually thinking, etc.
    That dual function is really helpful for a small company that is already as booked as can be in the creation of work without worrying too much about creating material exclusively for marketing purposes.
    I do think, ideally, that we would have one person whose sole job is the provide additional material about the process. Placing it in a context for the average reader. Adding interviews and other more specially presented materials.
    In the meantime, back to creating the show.

  2. Nice work, Blake! I can attest to the value of online collaborative tools for theater in between production meetings – and I agree that there’s value there even if the audience interactivity element comes in fits and starts. When the entire team buys into the idea of publicly discussing your ideas in a rich environment like a blog or a forum, the ideas continue to work for you.

    I think your idea to devote someone to contextualizing the discussion for a lay-person is also critical as you move forward… An editor or curator role, for instance. Alternatively, it may be worthwhile to have each contributor write with the lay person in mind – that way you retain the benefit of multiple voices on your blog. For some examples of this, check out the excellent Steppenwolf blog and our blog over at New Leaf – both of which use some coaching of contributers (but rarely editing) behind the scenes to keep the blog on schedule, open, and honest.

    Keep us posted as time goes on, and in the spirit of experimentation, let us know what works and what you find!

  3. Also to be filed under unique audience interaction – a moment toward the end of OUR TOWN at the Hypocrites. I don’t want to give it away, but like the movie theatre element mentioned above, it involves the sense of smell. And it was definitely engaging in a way I haven’t yet experienced. But I don’t know if it will result in long-term engagement/buy-in in the way that I think New Leaf is looking for, or even in the directiong that Building Stage (big fat kudos to you guys, by the way!) is heading.


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