Theater folks: How do you measure success?

Thanks to both Autumn Ames and ArtsJournal for pointing out this provocative blog post:

Alistair Smith, a writer for the Guardian, reports on a new system in some British theaters that measures the success of a production based on audiences’ emotional responses. If people leave weeping, and say so on a questionnaire, that apparently makes for a successful show. If people leave confused, and say so on a questionnaire — only to mull the show over and over in their minds for days — that’s apparently a problem.

Read Smith’s discussion, and then tell me yourselves: How do you measure theatrical success? Box office? Critics? Word of mouth? Just a gut feeling in your stomach? We’d all like to know.

7 responses to “Theater folks: How do you measure success?

  1. My feeling is just the opposite of the Guardian article. Eliciting an emotion seems like a simple thing. A few key plot points, good acting and directing should get a response.

    A truly great show has you asking questions. I call it the “on the way home” discussion. If you are figuring things out on the way home or the next day, the show was not a fleeting, throw-away experience. There are plays I still think about, I have seen years ago, pondering its meaning.

  2. Katrina Ploof

    If I hear an audience member say …”I never thought about “it” that way…” I’m pretty happy.

  3. John DiDonna

    Read the article and looked at the questionnaire. One thing to mention – template one – begins with the negative – that is always interesting because in doing so you set the tone for the respondent.

    To me the questions are subjective based on the particular production and its individual needs for communication and interaction.

    My usual sort of personal mission statement for experience is “feel emotionally and deeply and personally when you are there, think and philosophize when you leave.”

    If I get the audience to do that, bravo. But each event, each show, each life demands a differing response and your measure of success must be based on that.

    For example, at the end of HAIR I wanted the audience on its feet celebrating and hugging – – – while at the end of BATHORY I wanted them numb and queasy. If those things could be elicited (thankfully they were) I would consider that communication and sharing a success. However, if the reverse were true (numb at the end of Hair and celebrating at the end of Bathory) what a failure they would have been!

    There is no one “template questionnaire” that will serve, and the questions asked on these are a bit trite.

  4. There are actually US communities working on something similar on our side of the pond as well. Theatre Bay Area in partnership with WolfBrown research firm are piloting an intrinsic impact research project to measure the emotional response of audiences to art. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York, and Charleston are all participating (25 theatre companies in total) during the 2010/2011 season. They will set intrinsic impact goals for three productions in a season, measure the effect of each of those productions using the survey, and then generate a final report for each company and work through, with the artistic, administrative, and marketing staff, the implications of the research and how it matches (or doesn’t match) the hoped-for goals of the company.
    They are also developing a web-based interface that they hope will eventually allow organizations like the Alliance to provide accessible, fee-for-service others to conduct similar research.

    I’m not sure how I feel about this process yet – I want to learn more about how they plan to measure it. BUT, if there were a way to measure it I think it would be fascinating to help people understand the impact they are (or are not) making on their audiences. I think it IS cool that they are getting people to think about it, but I also think it is a very delicate process. Who WOULDN’T want to have good data to help measure the impact you are having on your audiences? I’m not ready to form an opinion just yet on this idea, but I am VERY curious to hear the outcomes after next year.

    Check out some work they’ve already done through their Free Night of Theatre project (similar to our ArtsFest): http://www.theatrebayarea.org/datapoint

  5. I agree with Mr. DiDonna, it depends on the play, and the night. When I can hit that magical moment when the audience is laughing and crying, I’ve done my job. Mostly I just like people showing up; if they’re in the room, I’ve won.

  6. John A. Kwitkoski

    Sorry Autumn, but this line bothered me: Who WOULDN’T want to have good data to help measure the impact you are having on your audiences? It seems to me that the “data” is sitting in those seats. In my limited acting life (college) I never found it that difficult to know if the audience was ‘getting’ what I was doing up on the stage. That mythical ‘vibe’ from the audience does exist if you’re open to feeling it. At least that was my experience.

  7. I guess I am just wearing my arts admin hat when I say “who wouldn’t want the data”- the ability to have concrete data to measure if the events we are programing are truly getting the results we want would be a very powerful tool to show how important the arts are. It would be another way for us to show the impact for those who have not experiecned the art. But, I’m not sure I’m sold that a system has been designed that really gives you those results. So, I’ll wait and see what our firends in San Fran come up with 🙂