For the next few weeks, I have the good fortune to be traveling with researcher Alan Brown to eight cities across the country as we present the findings from Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art, the two year study and resulting book just published by my organization, Theatre Bay Area.
This week, we visited Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul and spoke to nearly 200 artists, arts administrators, and funders about the work. It was energizing, exciting work—as a field, it is clear that we are, many of us, anxious to learn how to talk more effectively and accurately about the power of the art we make, and this research, which attempts to quantify the intellectual and emotional impact of art, was provocative for many in the audiences.
In Chicago, I met an acoustic consultant named Evelyn May who believes that impact assessment (surveying your audiences about how impacted they were by your work) might be an extremely useful way to understand small but important changes you make in the physical space.
While May was particularly talking about things like rattling vents, squeaky floors, etc, I was caught up in thinking about whether you could survey audiences before and after, say, configuring your space in various ways to see what configuration was most impactful.
Alan has done some preliminary research into this effect, and has seen indicators that arena-style setups, where people can actually see other people reacting, can lead to higher impacts. I had never thought about this particular use of the research before, and it’s interesting to me to consider how physical environments actually affect the experience, and whether we could know that through this work.
What does rain or cold do to the impact of an outdoor event? Could fixing a rattling fan really have a demonstrable impact on how engaged an audience was in an experience?
In Minneapolis, we invited representatives from the three area companies that participated in the study up on stage to talk about their experiences in doing this research. It was no small effort, as each company had to hand-place and then track the pick-up of hundreds of surveys over the course of a season, but the companies (Mixed Blood Theatre, Park Square Theatre, and La Crosse Community Theatre) all spoke eloquently about the transformations large and small that doing this research has wrought within their organizations.
Michael-jon Pease, who helped oversee the work for Park Square Theatre, talked about being able to actually see the different impacts their work was having on different segments of their audience, and how knowing that information has helped, and will continue to help them to better understand what pre- and post-engagement activities they were doing were useful with those groups.
In both cities, and I’m sure as we move forward, two of WolfBrown’s findings really resonated with those gathered.
The first is that audiences in general do not attend organized, at-the-theatre, post-show events at a terribly impressive rate. It’s about 10 percent of people, on average. Instead, by and large, they prefer to engage more informally, often outside the venue, either by thinking about the work, talking with others, or (very interestingly) reading or re-reading the program after the show.
Secondly, across all productions, single ticket buyers have categorically higher impact scores than subscribers. In other words, the people who are our “most loyal supporters” are actually less impacted by the work they see than single ticket buyers who come once and then may or may not come back.
Those single ticket buyers are also significantly younger, making them, essentially, the future of our enterprise.
Both of these things, separately and together, had those assembled really grappling with how to more effectively enhance arts experiences, to make them stickier, and to attempt to solidify the memory of their work in the minds of their patrons.
They were great conversations, with great hospitality from our local hosts, the League of Chicago Theatres and Arts Midwest, and I can’t think of a better way to kick off the trip.
Next week, we arrive in Boston to present on Tuesday, then head down the train line to New York, DC, and Philadelphia in the subsequent days. The DC event will actually be simulcast by our friends over at Howlround on NewPlayTV, so check that out if you can’t make it to one of the events!
For more information, the tour schedule, or to order the book, visit our site.