What Is a “Consumer-Friendly” Arts Experience?

What do arts consumers want?

In my last article, “Audiences as Consumers: Revisiting Assumptions,” I reviewed the fundamental challenge of attracting audiences to the performing arts. The consumer, I argued, wants convenience, stimulation and a special, customized experience. And, at the same time, I noted that the consumer is less inclined to take risk and even less prepared to plan in advance. So here we are, with these funny old buildings that demand long-term advance planning (and spending) and mission-based programming that offers pretty much the same experience to each consumer, from limited sensory stimulations associated with seeing a person on stage to all of the inconveniences associated with shoving a crowd into a room. Then what do we do? We say to the consumer: “Pay attention!” “And behave!”

This is obviously a big problem.

Story continues below.

Let me say up front that this real-life, ongoing scenario also does not include developing and offering shows that have the pleasure of audiences in mind. We can and should be creating theater, dance and music with a larger purpose in mind — a mission, in fact. So let’s start with the idea that what we put on the stage is there for good reason, and then let’s focus on how we fill the seats.

To do this, let’s put aside the four old P’s of marketing — product, place, price and promotion — and consider four new ones: packaging, preparation, processing and permission.

Packaging: The first new “P” is the idea that we should progress from selling a show — author, composer, actors, choreographer, title, compelling story, etc. — to selling the entire experience. That includes buying the tickets, all of the planning to make the experience happen, getting to and parking near the venue, food and entertainment beforehand, arriving at the theater, preparing to receive the actual performance, preparing to receive the experience after the performance, including food and entertainment; and, finally, getting back home.

Think of the Elizabethan theater of Shakespeare’s time.

Certainly there are elements of the experience that we can’t totally control, from the weather to the traffic. But there are things that we can influence, such as the entire experience of actually buying the tickets, providing advice and discounts to local bars and restaurants, offering packages with nearby hotels, the whole atmosphere we create as people come into and leave the venue, and help with practical tasks, such as identifying and leaving parking. Packaging means, in other words, recognizing all of the social aspects of coming to a performance.

Story continues below.

In my practice, I’ve been encouraging organizations to develop an in-person or online concierge service that helps individuals organize groups. Such a service can be wide-ranging, from setting meeting places to making dinner reservations to getting transportation. Even adding special extras like a backstage tour or a reception can make the difference between average and memorable experiences. Larger venues are now organizing before-and-after events around major concerts — essentially a version of tailgating, with food trucks, smaller bands, fan-clubs and media support that enhance and extend the experience.

Preparation: Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak’s 2007 report, “Assessing the Intrinsic Impact of a Live Performance” provides excellent insights into the ways that a performance impacts audiences, including captivation, intellectual stimulation, emotional resonance, spiritual value, aesthetic growth and social bonding. It also considers how to increase those impacts through better preparation for the experience, such as providing audiences with information and context to gives them understanding and insight into what they are about to see and hear.

But another part of preparation is helping the audience to reach the emotional state necessary to fully receive the experience. Again, there are things we can’t control. But certainly there are things we can do with, for example, the audience’s physical environment that will generate higher levels of anticipation and empathy towards the performers and the story being told.

Processing: The Intrinsic Impacts study additionally speaks to the value of providing audiences with opportunities to process and share their thoughts and feelings about what they’ve just experienced. So, for example, audience talk-backs with actors or creative teams, or simply invitations to spend time in the lobby with a drink after the show, turns out to have a major positive impact on the depth and quality of an audience experience. Not only is this easy to facilitate, it is increasingly standard operating procedure throughout the performing arts.

Permission: Centuries ago, theaters were built by artists for audiences. Think of the Elizabethan theater of Shakespeare’s time, with their companies of actors, supported by royal patrons. The “elites” sat in balconies wrapped around the stage while the “rabble” — the “groundlings” — stood, and rarely still, in the area in front of the stage. And all were profoundly engaged in the experience of the performance, yelling out encouragements and warnings, arguing and sometimes even fighting as all were swept along by the story and the action of the play.

Now think of today’s theaters and audiences. We have grand buildings designed and built by politicians and patrons, with world-class architects pursuing very personal creative visions. Our audience chambers are church-like — meant to inspire awe and reverence. We corral audiences into them like sheep. We admonish them to pay attention. Then we push them back out and send them on their way as soon as the performance is over.

Story continues below.

Lynne Conner — a historian, consultant and the principal investigator for The Heinz Endowment’s Arts Experience Initiative — has written a terrific paper that considers how things have changed and, equally important, what the implications are of all this. For the sake of stark contrast, consider her description of audiences of Ancient Athens:

People came to the arena, the playhouse, the concert hall or the gallery, and they talked to each other — before the show began, while the show was on, and after the show ended. They came to look, watch, eat, make deals, talk, flirt, learn, debate, emote, and engage with their fellow citizens… They were extremely vocal in their opinions during the performance and afterward in the ongoing civic debate that followed. The Athenian audience was a sovereign entity in terms of measuring and evaluating the arts event.

Over time, Conner suggests, the audience has been “sacralized” in an effort to reshape, partly along class lines, our cultural interactions. This is particularly evident in the US, where the insecurity of new wealth (from the colonial days to the Gilded Age) transformed the arts experience into an opportunity to display one’s cultivation and good manners. Even after the emergence of the nonprofit sector during the 20th century and the beginnings of multiculturalism, audiences have not regained any control of the arts experience.

There are things we can do to enhance the customer experience.

In my mind, this surrender of the audience’s control over their own arts experience is one of the key reasons why performing arts participation rates in the US have been declining for many years. And the antidote, I believe, is to give the audiences permission to be more active participants again — partners, if you will — in the presentation of the work. This is certainly easier said than done: there are countless examples of audience bad behavior compromising the experience of others, let alone the ability of the performer to simply deliver the work. But if we want to build and maintain audiences for the future, we have to work on this. We must provide a greater sense of control to the audience, a higher level of engagement.

Please let me know if, and how, you’re working on these four new “Ps” — or any other letters that you believe will lead to better audience development. Let’s keep the conversation going.