Larry Pontius

Larry Pontius

LA STAGE Talks: Researchers Measure the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre

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(On stage)Terence McFarland, Alan Brown and Clayton Lord

LA STAGE Alliance held the first of its LA STAGE Talks series yesterday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, “What Is the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre?”

For theater artists, one of the more challenging things to measure is how much impact their work has on an audience. With a new study, and a new book, the ability to measure what was once thought to be immeasurable has arrived.  Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art was a study commissioned by Theatre Bay Area, a theater service organization based in San Francisco to assess the impact theater productions have on their audiences.  With the research firm WolfBrown, 18 diverse theaters from around the country, doing 58 productions,  were involved for two years, with almost 19,000 responses from theater patrons.

The program at the Kirk Douglas Theatre unpacked the information within the study, with a focus on the LA area participants. Terence McFarland, CEO of LA STAGE Alliance, moderated the session, which was led by Clayton Lord, director of communications and audience development at Theatre Bay Area, and researcher Alan Brown, of WolfBrown.

Where the wild data is

For Clayton Lord,  it began with a lead role in a preschool production of Where the Wild Things Are, where he played Max.  It was the first time he had experienced theater in a way he could remember.  He didn’t understand what was going on. “It was more of a group exercise for our teacher.  So she made sure that everyone understood that the trees were important, and shrubs were important.”  And because of that, he didn’t tell his mother he was the lead of the show, which made her very upset when she didn’t bring her camera.  But for Lord, it was a turning point.  “It was about the whole artistic impact of that on my life.”  From then on, he became passionate about art, and his belief that art can change lives.

Clayton Lord

This love led him eventually led him to Theatre Bay Area, which has as a mission statement:  Theatre Bay Area’s mission is to unite, strengthen, promote and advance the theatre community in the San Francisco Bay Area, working on behalf of our conviction that the performing arts are an essential public good, critical to a healthy and truly democratic society, and invaluable as a source of personal enrichment and growth. What connected for him were the phrases “essential public good,” “democratic society,” and “personal enrichment and growth.”  These are ideals he wanted to promote.  “And then we started to do that, and we realized it was really hard.”  It was a problem of language and communicating the intangible to the people they wanted to reach (government, foundations, boards) who might not have come from a life in the theater, and who don’t have a story about playing Max when they were four.

“We started asking questions of our audience, our patrons, our companies.”  Turning to the audience, Lord asked the same questions, “What does the best art do?  When you see a really great production, or piece of visual art, or piece of music, what does it do to you?”  The audience in the Kirk Douglas quickly responded: makes you feel emotional, makes you think, makes you see something in a different way. He nods in agreement.

Lord brought up an interview with what he called a Super Patron, someone who sees 100 or more shows a year.  This patron had tried to describe a final moment in a play that still brought emotions to the surface, even three years later — “You would just walk out of there, like wow, like bam, you got hit with that.”  Lord pointed to that inarticulate moment of the audience member as the problem to struggle with.  How do you know how effective your art is if you can’t articulate it?  How do you know if your art is doing that to an audience?

He asked the directors and artistic directors in the audience why do they sit in the audience with patrons?  Why do they go to the lobby?  Replies floated up: to know how the work was playing, to get an authentic experience, to connect with the audience. Lord agreed that if you have spent a life in the theater, you know how an audience is responding.

He brought up another Super Patron, who said, “The way I can tell it’s a moving production is if it makes a tingle run through my entire body.”  He went on to say that it doesn’t always happen, — but it happens enough, that I know it’s going to happen again.”  Theater artists want an audience to feel as much as possible, Lord says, so they will keep coming back for more.

“So how do you convey that to other people?” he asked.  He contends that artists and arts administrators have turned into bean counters because they have to talk to people who count beans (funders, board members, government officials), which created the idea of the study.  Was there a way to still talk in numbers?  To talk about the “unmeasurable [sic] parts of the art that we made in a way that was maybe measurable.”

Alan Brown

While at a conference, Lord’s boss Brad Erickson heard Alan Brown, the researcher, speak.  Brown said, “If you can describe something, you can measure it.”  This spawned the study.  From that sentence, Lord remembered, emerged the idea of intrinsic impact.  “Measuring the things we couldn’t measure.  The intellectual, social, emotional and empathetic impact of a piece of art on an individual using a standard metric and a common vocabulary.”  With that, Lord turned the stage over to Brown.

For Brown, the primary objective of the study was to help the 18 theaters understand the impact of their productions.  That said, he wanted to discuss the aggregate analysis of the data.  “It’s an enormous, enormous data set.  Which as a researcher makes me very, very happy, because I never get 19,000 cases of anything to look at.”  Because the sample size is so big, there are almost no error margins.  The response rate of the surveys was about 45%, which is quite high, revealing that theater patrons are willing and desirous to share their opinions about the work.  They fill out surveys because they want to help the theater company.

Each company created a survey from a template which had categories of questions and some mandatory questions, in order to generate similar data across theaters. Audience members received the survey at the theater, after the show. They were asked to take the survey home, fill it out, and mail it back to Brown.

Brown went on to describe the limitations and bias that is contained within the study, something that is also important to recognize before starting a study.  “There is loyalty bias in the data. Subscribers always respond at twice the rate than single ticket buyers.”  He also brought up that the data isn’t comparable across sites.  “It doesn’t really make sense to compare a production of, say, Cats at a musical theater venue in one city with a production of an experimental drama in another city.” He warned that the data shouldn’t be turned into a contest for a high score.  “A given work of art is not intended to have every impact.”  Context is key.

Survey says

Almost every theater asked about motivations for attending.  The audience members filling out the survey could choose from 11 different motivations, but each of them could pick as many as three.  From the results, Brown was able to generate a graph of the seven main motivations, plotted along age groups.  For most, a primary motivation was to relax or escape, which goes up significantly with age, and then tapers off.  Second in popularity was the desire to be emotionally moved or inspired, which also went up with age, before leveling off.  The third motivation was to spend time with family members, which rises during the child rearing years, and then, “plunges” later.  One motivation that Brown found particularly interesting was the motivation to re-visit a familiar work of art, which continued to go up with age.  “In the theater, we tend to put a premium on aesthetic growth, stretching people, exposing them to something new, but aesthetic validation, going back to the same art over and over again, is also a legitimate part of the value system. It’s not easy to embrace.  Nutcracker, Christmas Carol, ritualized gathering is a huge part of the arts system.”

Alan Brown

The fourth motivation was being invited by someone else, which was more common among younger audiences and then tapered off.  Brown said, “An invitation from a friend explains half of all art participation.” Many members of audiences are invited to attend but weren’t part of the decision-making process about what to see.  For Brown, this speaks to the social dimensions of theater.

Brown moved on to anticipation, defined here as “how much are you looking forward to the show?”, which can be an indicator of impact.  He recognized a correlation between anticipation and percentage of seats sold.  At productions with higher percentage of seats sold, there was a higher sense of anticipation for the production.  For Brown, this suggests the importance of choosing an appropriately sized venue for a particular production, so it can be full.  “When the venue is full, people’s anticipation goes up” — similar to the experience of going into a full restaurant, versus an empty one.

One of the other questions asked on the survey: “did you do anything to prepare?”  Brown revealed that about 25% of audiences said yes, they did something to prepare.  Some theaters asked a follow-up, open-ended question: “what did you do to prepare?”  For some it was reading reviews, while others read about the play on Wikipedia.  For Brown one of the interesting statistics was the generational shift in who is reading reviews versus reading comments from friends — an older audience for the former, a younger one for the later.  “There’s a segment of theatergoers who won’t go unless they read something telling them they can’t miss that.”

“Post-performance engagement by age” —  Brown turned to another graph, noting that post-performance engagement declines with age.  “Older folks are less likely to report emailing or speaking to friends, reflecting privately, searching for information online.”  However, for older audiences there was an uptick in reading the program after the play.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, younger audiences tend to email and comment online.

Turning to the subject of making meaning, “the dominant mode of making meaning after a live performance is talking about it on the way home.”  While some venues do have post-show discussions, Brown suggested looking for ways to elicit conversation outside the venues, to continue the meaning-making process.  For example, the program could be used to help prepare an audience, and after the show it could be used to help make meaning.  “I encourage you to think about what content you might put in program books that would help people talk about their experiences.”

Audiences often leave a performance with unanswered questions.  In fact, on average, according to the study, 35% of an audience leaves with unanswered questions.  “Is it good or bad that people are leaving with questions?” Brown asked.  The audience replied, good and bad —  in other words, it depended on the type of unanswered questions.  Brown replied, “The whole point is if you don’t have a forum for asking your questions, it’s a missed opportunity.” Brown felt unanswered questions speak to intellectual stimulation.

The audience at the first LA STAGE Talks

“This data generated a mountain of qualitative data in the form of questions.  Because we asked everyone what were some of your questions.”  Ninety-eight per cent of those people responded with their questions.  He found this data very rich because reading their questions reveals a great deal about their understanding of the play, what’s important to them, and their insights.  Some of the questions reported from the study were: “Why did you do this play?  Why is this play entitled what it is?  What’s special, what’s interesting about the work?” Brown called it a search for “curatorial insight.”

“You can transmit curatorial insight in many ways. Sometimes in your program books you have a note from the director, on your websites you might have a video interview, or you might actually do a curtain speech.”  All of these things could provide insight into the program for the audience.  “Audiences are hungry for curatorial insight.”

The study judged impact on an audience using radius charts.  Brown displayed a chart used for three productions at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington.  The spokes of the wheel began with “captivation,” a leading indicator of impact, followed by “gripping, emotional response,” “empathy/connection,” “left theater resolved to make a change in your life” (which fits in with Wooly Mammoth’s mission of being a change agent), “gained in learning or insight”, “thought about the structure of the play”, “exposed to something new” (an indicator of aesthetic growth), “social bonding” (feeling closer to one’s own community or group), and “social bridging” (feeling closer to members of other communities or groups). Woolly Mammoth could get an idea of what kind of impact each show got in relation to the others, in all these categories.  As Brown described it, “an impact footprint.”

He then showed a graph overlaying musicals and plays.  “I can’t say this is a definitive data on all musicals and all plays.  Our sample was not designed to be representative of all plays and musicals.”  He noted that by and large musicals had higher captivation and empathy scores than plays, which scored higher on intellectual stimulation.

The artistic impact of a show was greater on the audience members who decided to purchase the tickets.  However, Brown reminded, they don’t make up the whole audience, and, in fact they could skew the data, as they are more loyal, more tuned-in audience members.  Artistic directors should seek out the non-ticket-buying audience members to get a full picture of the impact of a show.

“What’s really provocative, probably the biggest headline in this whole analysis —  single ticket buyers reported categorically higher impacts than subscribers.”  Brown feels this is because not only are they acting as decision makers, but also because they do not attend as often. Each performance becomes more special, creating more anticipation and more incentive to become informed about the production. Brown proposed the question, “If infrequent attenders are having more impactful experiences, why aren’t they coming back more often?”

Alan Brown

Brown turned it back to subscribers and their engagement.  “If you think about it, subscribers buy a basket of risk.”  Subscribers have lower anticipation because often they have disengaged with the show until it’s their day to see it. Brown wonders if more could be done with subscribers, because those with higher anticipation report higher impacts.

Lord responded to a question from the audience about talkbacks.  “Talkback rate is actually pretty low and specific to a certain group of people.”  Most people want to engage in a different way, and  “the dominant way actually happens outside the theater.”  One idea Lord suggests is a list of questions in the program that the audience could take home, ponder and discuss.

Brown wrapped up by saying that audience engagement, which leads to higher impact, begins with familiarity, preparation and feeling welcome.  “Especially familiarity with the story.”  He stressed, “That was the highest predictor of anticipation” — twice as high as familiarity with the cast or playwright.  This suggested that marketing must be strategically written, as often it is the only thing an audience reads before coming to a performance. “People with a higher level of anticipation are more likely to be captivated.”  And captivation leads to more impact of the art on the audience members.

Reflections from the front lines

For part two, Brown and Lord were joined on stage by Theatre @ Boston Court co-artistic director Jessica Kubzansky, Musical Theatre West marketing director Michael Betts, and South Coast Repertory director of marketing Bil Schroeder.  Each of these companies participated in the study, and the trio was there to talk about what they learned in respect to specific shows.

Theatre @ Boston Court has been around for almost 10 years, doing some interpretations of classics but more often focusing on new work, with an eye toward challenging its audiences.  Kubzansky talked about the three productions that were studied: Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by Fin Kennedy and Heavier than”¦ by Steve Yockey.  How To Disappear scored higher captivation than Camino Real, which didn’t surprise Kubzansky as she felt How to Disappear had a more relatable story and a strong central performance. Also, Camino Real might have suffered because audiences expected something different from a play by Williams.  Brown pointed out that in the entire study, Boston Court’s production of Camino Real scored the highest in unanswered questions. This evoked good-natured cheers from Kubzansky and others.

Bill Schroeder, Michael Betts, Jessica Kubzansky, Terence McFarland, Alan Brown and Clayton Lord

In light of the study, Kubzansky, who directed Camino Real, feels she they would have done things differently.  “I think we didn’t do enough to help audiences sort, clarify, contextualize all those things.  That’s something I learned.”  She liked the idea of proposing questions in the program, and if an audience wanted to know how the director would answer them, to take them to the website.  “So you don’t have to give them the answer while they’re asking the question, but actually, later, if they are interested in knowing what the artistic impulse was, they can get that too.  That’s a really exciting thing.”

Musical Theatre West, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, produces four to five musicals a year in a 1000-seat theater in Long Beach. The three shows the study looked at were Cats, Summer of Love by Roger Bean, and The Wedding Singer, based on the Adam Sandler movie set in the 1980s.  One of the impact charts for The Wedding Singer compared the audience response to the staff’s prediction of that response.  The staff had anticipated a much higher response and excitement than had occurred.  Betts discussed how most staff members were children of the ’80s, and Wedding Singer seemed like a show that might engage a younger audience.  “We really thought it was going to catch fire.”  But it didn’t.  Afterwards three focus groups, each with women in their 60s, discussed why.  “The women reminded us” — they were having kids in the ’80s, so they didn’t really plug into ’80s culture.”  Betts said they looked at this data as they were planning the next season, using the information to help shape which shows might more strongly connect with their audience.  “We do very well with shows that bring people back to the memories that they had when they first saw the shows.”

Besides helping shape the season, the study helped shape the institution’s method of preparing its subscriber base for a show, Betts explained.  Now, before a production, a study guide and a reminder are emailed and pre-show discussions provide insight and context.

Bil Schroeder represented South Coast Rep, which produces premieres and a smaller number of  classics and other revivals. The study examined SCR’s productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Completeness by Itamar Moses, and Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. One of the charts revealed the audience responses to the question: “To what extent did anything about the performance offend you or make you uncomfortable?”  The chart also reported the level of staff anticipation of the answers to that question. The staff had anticipated a higher rate of offense than actually occurred, specifically for Completeness.

Bill Schroeder, Michael Betts, Jessica Kubzansky, Terence McFarland, Alan Brown and Clayton Lord

Schroeder talked briefly about this.  “In Completeness there was nudity, male and female frontal nudity.  We don’t have a great track record with that.”  In the past when there had been nudity, the staff received complaints and so expected it again.  But in the end, in the focus groups, Schroeder discovered there was no resistance to the nudity because the audience felt it was justified.  In another group, Schroeder was surprised by the reaction of one audience member, who had been invited by a friend.  She said, “I don’t understand why the man wasn’t erect. He would have been erect in that situation.”

“The staff thought we were going to rock their world,” Schroeder said, “and we didn’t quite rock their world.”  He warned about overselling impact to audience through marketing, about making a promise that can’t be delivered.  “What they really want is plot.  They don’t really want you to tell them about the significance and the standing of the playwright.  They really want to understand what plot they are getting into.”

All three agreed that both the qualitative and quantitative information was useful in making decisions and in speaking to those who focus on “numbers.”

The pander problem

Might this information warp the artistic decision-making process, so that it aims only at fulfilling what an audience wants? An audience member at the Douglas wanted to know how artistic directors avoid crossing the line into pandering.  Brown responded,  “That is precisely the core issue underneath all of this — what is the role of audience data in an artistically driven organization?  I hope that you all will go from here thinking about where that line is for you and your organization.”

Kubzansky said the information informed her about the audience, but it won’t take her away from the vision of her company.  However, she also noted, “I have a 99-seat house.”  So her economic realities are different from those of, say, Musical Theatre West.

Brown spoke up again, “For me this is about accountability.  Opting for a higher level of accountability for artistic outcome.  Wanting to understand how your artistic choices are received.”

Bill Schroeder, Michael Betts, Jessica Kubzansky, Terence McFarland, Clayton Lord and Alan Brown

Brown wrapped up by talking about the audience engagement cycle — beginning with marketing, the decision to attend, and then the moment to help contextualize the piece.  Audience members might not tune in until the last few hours or even minutes before a performance. “There’s this moment right before an event starts where you’ve got an opportunity to give them a little information.  And the question you have to ask yourself, and your colleagues, as a matter of institutional philosophy, how much context do you insist people have or not?”

Lord listed the practical applications of doing a survey like this for a theater company.  The first was being able to check the impact against goals.  It allows a staff to know whether it is succeeding at maningfully reaching the audience.  It also allows the staff to react immediately if the impact seems stifled.  With a better understanding of how an audience is receiving a show, one can shape the marketing and engagement.  Conducting an impact study will also help shape pre- and post-performance engagement, as well as the board’s and funders’ understanding of success.

In the end, for Lord, impact is important because it creates a strong memory that drives audience members to return to the place where they had that experience, in search of another. Artistic impact can be measured, he maintained.  Theater companies should take advantage of these tools in order to learn and to grow.

For more information about the survey or to become a part of it visit:

IntrinsicImpact.org

Making Sense of Audience Engagement at WolfBrown.com

To purchase the book outlining more of the results: www.theatrebayarea.org/intrinsicimpact

And on Twitter, join the conversation:  #newbeans

Larry Pontius received his MFA in Playwrights from the University of Texas at Austin. His produced work includes an Off-Broadway production of Umbrella by Alchemy Theatre Company of Manhattan;  The Lunar Adventures of Dar and Matey by Stolen Chair Theater, On The Night of Anthony’s 30th Birthday Party, Again at the Manhattan Theatre Source.  He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and the Playwrights Union. For more information, please go to www.LPontius.com

***All photos by Katie Gould