I developed my deep fondness for assessment over 12 years in theatre education and community programming and I bring that affinity into my work as an artistic leader for dog & pony dc, the administrative leader for Washington Improv Theater, and a “chief experience officer” focused on community building and civic discourse through arts participation.
Why am I fond of measurement?
As a box-checker, it provides a tremendous sense of accomplishment. As a lifelong learner, it allows reflection on choices I make and their effect…in order to make stronger/more interesting or daring choices in the future. As a manager, it supports the creation and execution of successful programming and initiatives.
I grew up as an arts educator early in the assessment and evaluation movement in regional theatre education.
I learned some valuable lessons:
- be realistic (you can only accomplish so much in 45 minutes with 30 third graders);
- plans can be adjusted (and improved) when you know the endgame;
- assessment is linked to impact and change;
- if you can observe it, you can measure it.
It was no surprise when I fell head-over-heels for Theatre Bay Area and Wolf Brown’s Intrinsic Impact study, which reaches beyond measuring success by ticket revenue and surveys that only ask if audience liked/not a show.
The Intrinsic Impact approach is comprehensive: ask artists what they thought the impact of their work would be on the audience and then ask the audience the same questions. Tabulate. Compare. Reflect. Discuss. Look at trends over time. Reflect. Learn. [insert sigh of contentment]
For me, the takeaway of the Intrinsic Impact work is that it positions artistic leaders, and eventually theatre artists, to be more intentional. They can base choices on the effect they want to have on an audience, and then to gauge that effect. It has the potential to result in increased engagement between artists/art/audience and to reframe the conversation about the role of theatre and value of art in civic life.
But here’s the thing: I’m feeling in the minority.
Back in the day, arts educators and teaching artists across the country resisted the use of outcomes-based assessment models with protests of:
“You’re confining our creativity.”
“You’re devaluing our work.”
“You’re requiring us to justify our existence.”
And even: “You can’t measure what we teach.”
I believe this was largely a reaction to an unfamiliar practice first introduced by funders and not arts educators; this lack of familiarity exacerbated by the limited formal education training of most arts education and teaching artists.
I am seeing similar reactions to Intrinsic Impact work. A recent discussion started about asking audience to describe their experience of performances, but quickly morphed into objections to allowing the audience to dictate your next season. Wha?
I was reminded of objections from artistic colleagues not even a year prior:
“We can’t measure the effect of our work.”
“The audience will either ‘get it’ or not.”
“It is subjective—the audience makes their own meaning. There is no right or wrong reaction.”
“I know I’ve achieved it when I see it, but I can’t describe it.”
“The audience has no right to judge my art.”
Measurement is once more rejected as an unfamiliar practice from outside the field with no value—a perception reinforced because when we do measure success it is by butts in seats, dollars in hand, and favorable/unfavorable reviews.
The Intrinsic Impact approach is linked to the transformational power of live performance, not ticket revenue. As theatre artists, we all believe that artistic engagement has a positive impact: broadening perspective, expanding capacity for empathy, ability to deliberate, and desire to improve ourselves and our world.
I propose that art makers ease into measuring impact by trying some of the approaches of educators:
- What is the essential question of the work–the open-ended question that frames audience inquiry? What ideas or understandings will audience “uncover” through the performance?
- What behaviors do you want to see the audience engage in during this performance? When you see them do those things, what message does that send you?
- What activity do you want audience involved in immediately following a performance of this show?
- What will the audience learn or be inclined to do?
1) Watch the audience during performances.
2) Ask the audience (comment card or emailed Google form)
- What did the show make them think about?
- Did they [insert list behaviors] during the show?
- What questions about the work or for the artists linger after the show?
3) Look over all the answers.
This is your first step toward exploring the effect of your work.
Once you have waded into the pool, I promise: it gets much easier to digest the different areas or “constructs” of Intrinsic Impact. At first glance, it can be intimidating. But the only way we are going to take control of the conversation about “why art matters” and “art’s effect of the community” is to direct it and engage all the participants (e.g. artists and audience).
Measurement is scary. It requires us to make intentional choices. It holds us accountable to ourselves and the work we are dedicated to do first and foremost. But it shows the impact of our programming in action. It can tell the story of why we matter, and that’s a story we should all want to tell.