Theater 2.0 – audiences move from passive to active participation

It’s that time of year again—when roughly 1,000 theater makers from around the world converge on a city for the annual Theatre Communications Group National Conference. This year, I was honored to receive an invitation from Clayton Lord, Theatre Bay Area’s Director of Communications and Audience Development, to participate on a panel entitled “Maximizing Impact: Modeling New Relationships between Artists and Audiences,” along with American Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director Diane Paulus and prominent researcher, blogger and provocateur Diane Ragsdale

In preparation for our panel, Clay sent each participant a mountainous stack of information and research, including Counting New Beans, The James Irvine Foundation report “Getting in on the Act,” The San Francisco Foundation report “Making Sense of Audience Engagement-Volume 1,” and a few yet to be published scholarly works. All in all, nearly a thousand pages of data, analysis and trend reports from some of the most well respected thinkers in the field, each report insightful and ground-breaking in its own way.

But who would have thought ten years ago that researchers and practitioners would be spending so much time thinking about audience engagement in what has traditionally been a passive spectator1 art form?

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Today’s conversations mirror the ones that technology experts were having a decade ago when social media started to emerge. Practice was that websites were designed to disseminate information, so much so that some of the earliest websites that theater companies created were actually digital scans of season brochures.  Then came Friendster. MySpace. Webblogs. Podcasts. Wikis. People started to talk about crowdsourcing information (Wikipedia), creating online social communities (Facebook), and sharing photos and video (YouTube, Flickr). And not so gradually, the once passive consumer of websites became co-creators, as the web morphed into what is now referred to as Web 2.0.

Technology, perhaps more so than anything else, now influences the way we interact with, view and process the world. Inventions in the past decade have completely radicalized the music industry, once built on selling complete CD albums toward being able to purchase (and illegally share) digital singles.

The Metropolitan Opera now serves exponentially more people via its Live in HD broadcasts than it does with in person experiences in its famed opera house, and soon libraries will begin servicing most of its users via digital collections due to massive digitization projects like the Library of Congress Digital Library Project. Not to mention that I’ve served as a professor for the past four years for two different universities and I’ve never stepped in a classroom, well a traditional classroom that is.

These trends have even caught the attention of Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Huffington Post blogger. In an April 16 Huffington Post blog entitled “Engaging Audiences,” Mr. Kaiser asks three questions:

  • If audiences are uniformly looking for a different (interactive) experience, then why are many plays still selling so well?
  • If we believe we can remedy our loss of audience by offering a more ‘engaging’ experience, which audience segments are we trying to engage?
  • Once we have selected the audience groups we intend to target, can we design an appropriate engagement strategy?

In response to Mr. Kaiser’s questions, I would say audiences aren’t uniform in any way, including how they want to engage with the artistic product. There is still a significant portion of our audience that doesn’t want to actively engage. Working with Clayton Lord and Alan Brown on the Intrinsic Impact Study, Arena Stage asked several engagement questions of its audience, and I must say I was surprised with the number of audience members that said they came to the theater to experience, not actively engage with, great art. In short, recognizing that for them, being a passive spectator was fine.

Perhaps companies that are presenting plays with little or no engagement strategies to sold out audiences have tapped into this audience segment well. But what happens as that segment dwindles, as the 2008 NEA Survey of Public Participation in the Arts shows?

To his second question, I believe arts organizations might have to redefine their audiences, similar to the Metropolitan Opera. We have traditionally defined our audiences by who is in our theaters on any given night. All too often arts organizations view online experiences as ancillary to in-person, physical experiences, when many actually have a larger online base.

Recently I was asked to attend a planning exercise for an organization that had 100,000 visitors annually at their building, but more than a million unique visitors online each year. All too often we think of the online experience as being sprinkles on the cupcake, when some of us should be viewing our online relationships as the cupcake itself.

Mr. Kaiser’s third question is followed by the statement that “techniques we use to engage older audiences are different from those we use for teenagers. Not every audience type requires talk-back sessions, participatory activities or an online component.” While I agree that audience segments desire difference experiences, I would also say that certain artistic experiences require different engagement activities. For example, engagement strategies for particularly juicy plays such as Clybourne Park, The Normal Heart or Really Really will be very different than those for The Music Man, Xanadu or The Addams Family. That’s not to say that more “popular” offerings don’t need engagement, only that strategies need to be different. Would you want to stay after curtain for a talk-back to discuss the themes of The Addams Family? No but perhaps a pre-show demonstration of stage make-up techniques might interest younger audiences.

But to answer the question if we can design varied engagement strategies that reach a multitude of audience segments, I’d like to offer up a few examples:

Cornerstone Theater Company. Cornerstone works with variety of stakeholders to produce new plays with professional and amateur actors centered on big issues within their community—hunger, addiction, faith, justice. And they do it from day one in true collaboration with community members focusing on the process as much as, if not more than, the ultimate product.

“The Art of Video Games” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The museum asked the public to vote to narrow down a final list of 240 games that could be featured in the exhibit, thereby crowdsourcing the ultimate product of exhibition. More than 3.7 million votes were gathered from 175 different countries.

“Rusty Musicians with the BSO”. Anyone older than 25 who could read music and play an instrument was invited to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for two nights in 2010. Within 24 hours, 400 people had signed up. Tickets were sold to an “informal audience” (I bet mostly proud family members) at $10 a pop.

As we continue to evolve from passive to active participation in more of our daily activities, fueled in part by a technology revolution at the turn of the century, what will Theater 2.0 begin to look like? The answer is that we don’t really know, but won’t it be fun inventing it?



1 Term originally used by Clayton Lord in to-date unpublished work.



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