Are Theater Focus Groups the Future? Ken Davenport Thinks So

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Fillmore and Fillmore East impresario Bill Graham gave me the best description of art/commerce modus operandi I’ve ever heard-an M. O. I don’t hesitate recommending for everyday life. When I interviewed Graham in 1971 right after he’d announced he was closing both the San Francisco and New York Fillmores (from which Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, among myriad important others, emerged) he said, entirely without arrogance: “I never give the public what it wants, I give the public what it should want.”

Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991, and because anything that happened before yesterday-or anyone who happened-has no meaning for too many people these days, I’ll declare that Graham is likely the best rock producer the music world has ever known. If the only group he ever promoted had been Big Brother and the Holding Company with lead singer and then soloist Janis Joplin wailing her life’s torment for all the world to witness, I would have revered him forever.

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dialWhat brings Graham and his nugget of incontrovertible wisdom to mind is my reading the recent New York Times account of an experiment that producer Ken Davenport is running in conjunction with his impending musical adaptation of the 1980 Christopher Reeve movie Somewhere in Time.

Times cultural staffer Patrick Healy writes that at Portland, Oregon’s Portland Center Stage Davenport dial tested minute-by-minute reactions to the show that just concluded its try-out there. According to Healy, audience members registered on hand-held devices their responses to what was unfolding before them as “love this part,” “neutral about this part” or “hate this part.”

Previously unheard of in theater, this form of (hocus-pocus) focus groups examination isn’t new to television, movies and detergents. But it pretty much smacks of a give-the-public-what-it-wants policy, which is, of course, based on the assumption that the public knows what it wants. That begs the questions: 1) Does the public know what it wants?; and 2) Do arts and entertainment purveyors indisputably gain by assuming they’ve put their finger on what the public wants after the public has put its collective finger on a dial?

I pause here to state that I adamantly do not claim the public isn’t helpful for producers et al in determining a production’s merits-this, despite sitting in theaters where audiences habitually accord standing ovations to the most obvious drivel.

I thank audiences as someone who won recognition when I was a cabaret performer and who knew that if my partners and I (we worked as Weeden, Finkle and Fay-Bill Weeden, Sally Fay) introduced a new piece of material to little or no audience appreciation over a period of two weeks, we were doing something wrong and had better look into it. We recognized that the audience was-a series of audiences were-telling us something. As a result, I regard audiences as not merely passive spectators but valuable performance participants.

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Apparently, Davenport ran his dial testing for three performances. Only three?! Anyone who knows anything about audiences knows they vary from night to night. Three nights hardly sounds sufficient to gauge cumulative response. We all know-maybe actors in musicals and comedies know it best-that dialog, jokes, songs getting response one night may lie flat as pancakes the next. Additional nights may yield even more discrepant results. Furthermore, not a few theater veterans will swear, for instance, that the smartest audiences inevitably come on Thursday night, whereas the duller-if more standing-ovation-prone audiences-herd in on Saturday.

One might say of Davenport’s dial testing that any conclusion reached might make sense only if there’s uniformity to the button-manipulating outcome. In the case of wide disparities, the result could be heightened confusion. This would seem to throw decision-making back on the creators-not good if they’ve chosen to disregard their own instincts and have put their trust in dials.

Certainly that seems like Davenport’s strategy. Although he told Healy he was only using the dial method to gauge whether reactions confirmed his impressions, his choice hints strongly that he’s questioning his perceptions. Davenport told me in a telephone call we had to verify Healy’s facts (which he substantiated) that his dial testing is simply taking advantage of new technologies-“bringing theater into the 21st century” is how he put it. He also maintained in his pleasant producer’s inflections that he used the dials as “one more tool in the box.” Also, he said, he could employ findings to help “settle arguments with team members at three a. m.”

On the other hand, Healy points out that Davenport’s last two Broadway enterprises were the modest-sellers Macbeth of this just-ended season and the 2011 Godspell revival. The implication is: Davenport could be thinking that had he gone the love-neutral-hate route on those two, he’d have known better than to go forward with them.

In that case, he might not have wanted me screwing up his percentages. I would have pushed “love this part” throughout non-Tony-nominated Alan Cumming’s spectacular Macbeth. As for Godspell, I probably would have driven myself nuts alternating between “love this part” and “hate this part.” (Whatever happened to Facebook’s “like”?)

The real baffler for me is Altar Boyz, the production that got Davenport his first recognition as a producer to whom attention must be paid. The long-running tuner took the form of a rock fund-raiser for Jesus. To say it was satire of the highest, most knee-slapping order is only to begin recognizing its gratification quotient.

On the other hand, there’s no disputing that religion was being knocked throughout Altar Boyz. Anyone would have to be thick-headed to deny that large numbers of potential theater-goers would have objected to it had they been invited to dial test on contents. (Davenport did turn to focus groups for Altar Boyz, but only for marketing purposes.) Had those button-pushers prevailed on aspects of the show, Davenport might have decided against mounting the eventual hit, and then where would he be today?

Let’s hope he reconsiders his 21st-century approach and resumes exclusively trusting his instincts and the instincts of the people he brings on board with him. After all, if a producer can’t trust his own taste, why is he or she producing in the first place? Why should any investor hand over backing to producers who don’t believe completely in themselves?