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TBA Online: News & Features: January 2014

Mind the Gap: The Expanding Territory of Audience Engagement

Friday, February 28, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Laura Brueckner 

There was a time when a theatre company could consider its audience engagement work done if it advertised its latest show in the newspaper and set up an easel in the lobby with a dignified, sepia-tone portrait of the playwright. The art happened
inside the theatre, on the stage where it belonged, clearly separate from the nonartistic elements of the theatregoing experience (the lobby, the coat check, the concessions stand, the sidewalk outside, etc.). For many theatres across the U.S., that time will soon be past. For an increasing number of Bay Area theatres, that time is long gone, and good riddance. 

Increasingly, "audience engagement" is everywhere you look in the nonprofit theatre field. This is the result of a major paradigm shift—which is still happening—in how theatres understand their relationships to the people who come see their shows. 

The audience engagement revolution, of course, springs partially from competition for audience dollars with other activities like TV, movies, concerts and sporting events, or even staying home. But now an even bigger influence is the rise of social media culture. More and more, people expect to be able to choose from a range of ultra-personalized entertainment experiences that they can access anywhere, on any web-capable device, on demand—and also to share the things they like with hundreds of friends, instantly. This fundamental change in how people relate to information assumes moment-to-moment freedom of choice, and takes interactivity and social connectivity as a given. In the Bay Area, the rising "DIY" or "maker" scene, with its get-your-hands-dirty participation ethos, adds another twist to interactivity and socializing. All in all, we have a growing number of potential audience members who simply aren't interested in entertainment that happens to them. (Yes, movie theatres are in trouble too.) 

"I think that what we consider the norm in theatre (where people sit quietly in their chairs in the dark and watch others perform) is actually a very recent, very white middle-class norm, something that came about in the 20th century," says Rebecca Novick, director of the Triangle Lab, a joint community engagement project of California Shakespeare Theater and Intersection for the Arts. "I think sticking to that particular norm is elitist...and is really unstrategic in terms of reaching people who don't go to theatre because they think it's stuffy." 

Chalkboard audience activity by the Triangle Lab at California Shakespeare Theater's 2013 production of A Winter's Tale. Photo: Jay Yamada

Chalkboard audience activity by the Triangle Lab at California Shakespeare Theater's 2013 production of A Winter's Tale.
Photo: Jay Yamada

Faced with so many challenges—competition for audience attention from other media, many of them cheaper and easier to access; audiences that increasingly prefer entertainment with interactive and social dimensions; and (neither coincidentally nor trivially) a funding environment obsessed with audience engagement—theatre-makers are understandably eager to find new ways to connect.

In his article "Engaging Engagement" on, Michael Rohd, founding artistic director of Sojourn Theater in Portland, Oregon, and a leader in audience engagement thinking, identifies four important centers of activity that currently all go by the name of "audience engagement":

1. Reaching out to new, "potentially interested community constituencies" in relation to a specific play.

2. Augmenting existing audiences' experience of the play through "events and strategies offered on site, online, and even beyond the walls of the institution."

3. Creating and producing shows that that employ "non-traditional uses of site" and audience participation.

4. Developing new work in partnership with community members, "with an emphasis on the local aspects of artmaking and presenting."

Clearly, the term "audience engagement" covers a
lot of terrain. In fact, this points to one of the challenges theatres face when beginning to frame their AE goals and design their activities: there's not much of a widely accepted functional vocabulary. That also stands in the way of us learning from one another, so how can theatres share their AE discoveries? 

The words aren't the only sticking point; there's also the work. It's interesting to look at Rohd's list and think about who, on a theatre's staff, might typically be responsible for each kind of AE. Since AE is necessarily cross-disciplinary, any activity listed above could fall to almost anyone: marketing staff, education staff, dramaturg, stage manager, artistic director, show director. And in some theatres, many of those roles may all be filled by the same overworked person. So that's another challenge: determining whose actual job is it to "engage audiences." (Saying, "It's everyone's job, by golly—we're a theatre!" doesn't get the photocopies made.) The importance of AE as a year-round pursuit has been recognized only fairly recently, so theatres have had to decide pretty quickly how to allocate precious time and resources to a very new but increasingly important aspect of artmaking. Job titles at many theatres have yet to catch up, too; staffers who have recently had "audience engagement" added to their plates may feel a little at sea, unsure what their actual duties are, which organizational resources they can draw upon and who their AE colleagues at sister theatres are. 

Still, the sense of urgency around AE keeps people trying. And that's good. There are no degree programs yet in "Audience Engagement Studies," no national council to develop terminology and no set of best practices to guide the average theatre's efforts. So many theatre-makers find themselves making it up as they go. 

Audience members take a postshow walk through the set of Underneath the Lintel at American Conservatory Theater, 2013.
Photo: Laura Brueckner

There's a lot going on in the Bay Area around the second type of audience engagement Rohd describes above, the on- or off-site "events and strategies" intended to deepen the audience's relationship to the play and/or theatre company. In addition to the standard talkbacks and "nights out" for various groups, recent AE ideas in the Bay Area have included a dance party (Cal Shakes), a magnet wall, a scavenger hunt, an on-demand poet (Berkeley Repertory Theatre), a postshow tour of the stage with the set and props still in place (American Conservatory Theater), gifts underneath seats (City Lights Theater Company), call-in hotlines (Cal Shakes and Mugwumpin) and a caption contest for a New Yorker cartoon drawn specifically for the show (Crowded Fire Theater). Even as this article was being written, I heard that Custom Made Theatre Co.'s new show, which hadn't yet opened, involved a preshow period where audiences would be encouraged to write on the playing space with chalk. It seems that our recent focus on AE, rather than merely troubling the old line between the art and the not-the-art, has split that division wide open. What we're seeing is a new terrain, somehow between reality and the stage, ripe for innovation. It's as though someone cracked open a conceptual piñata and we're all scrambling for the candy.

But the trial-and-error method can be frustrating too. Sometimes an activity looks great to the staff, but when the show opens, the audience just isn't interested; other times, the simplest idea becomes a smash hit. How do we get basic principles and learn what works, ideally before opening night? 

One way is to pillage another discipline: design. In general, good design is understandable, usable and interesting; bad design is confusing, pointless and alienating. And the field has a wealth of ways to talk about this, plus some really useful pieces of vocabulary to offer theatre-makers. For example, in his seminal book The Design of Everyday Things, author Don Norman identifies a handful of important components that make a design understandable and enjoyable. These include:

Affordances. What actions are possible with this object, including actions outside the item's main purpose? A baseball bat affords swinging, but it also affords propping things open, poking things out of reach, etc. A chalkboard affords being written on, a cabinet door affords opening.

Signifiers. What tells me where I must push/pull/tap/etc. on the object to "use" it? 

Doors have doorknobs or plates that read "PUSH." Scissors have handles shaped to accommodate the human hand. 

Feedback. How do I know if I've done it right or wrong, and if wrong, how do I fix it?

We expect our actions to have results. If I put a DVD into my DVD player and it plays, success! If I do that and it doesn't play, what feedback does the machine give me about what went wrong?

The conceptual model. How the whole thing works; a sketch, not a detailed diagram.

You put a DVD into a DVD player, it spins, the components inside the player shine some kind of light on the surface of the disc, and the movie plays. 

These terms aren't easy on the ear, but they do isolate some of the key elements that can lead to audience members enjoying (or not enjoying) AE activities. This helps the people running the activity trouble-shoot. Novick describes what she learned from an AE activity at Cal Shakes that didn't go as planned: "For
Lady Windermere's Fan we had a secret hotline—a phone number that you could call and leave a secret on. At the [theatre] we had a fake old-fashioned red phone to get people to come over and get the info about how to call the hotline. During previews people would pick up the handset and get really pissed that you couldn't use the phone to call that hotline then and there. So we created an audio loop of the secrets we'd already received and you could listen to that on the phone when you picked it up." 

Essentially, this was a lesson in affordances and the conceptual model. In most people's conceptual model of phones, they afford speaking to and listening to people. But specifically, a "hotline" affords communicating content that is urgent and important. Finding that speaking into the hotline phones wasn't afforded, and that all they could hear was rules to go do something else (not the high-stakes content the name implied), audience members rebelled. Novick's triumph was in how she fixed it: she reinstated the hotline affordance of listening to high-stakes content. 

The notion of the conceptual model is especially useful for creating new audience activities, especially if they involve interacting with other people. If a theatre can model its AE activity on a real-life activity, it gives participants a sense of how to behave and what will be expected of them, so that they can relax and find their way through it more easily. Game shows, political speeches, panhandling, jury trials, school lessons, boxing matches, photo shoots—each of these activities has a signature shape and signature expected conduct for all involved. Therefore, audience members have a conceptual model of each that you can draw upon.  

The Great Big Also, San Francisco troupe Mugwumpin's recent piece at Z Space, featured a striking preshow audience activity that drew on a conceptual model from the outside world. The play depicted a group of Americans with a fairly cultlike dynamic anticipating the fulfillment of a possibly apocalyptic prophecy; during the preshow period, actors already in character greeted audience members, asked them about their political and spiritual views, and described their own beliefs and what was to happen next, all while walking them in groups out of the warmly lit, homey lobby and into the cavernous, dark playing space where the play would begin. It could have been clumsy, confusing or annoying; it wasn't. 

Stephanie DeMott doing "intake" with audience members in Mugwumpin's The Great Big Also, 2013.
Photo: Pak Han

In development, artistic director Christopher W. White and the cast had realized they wanted to build an activity preparing audiences to be talked to directly by the actors and justifying moving them physically from the lobby into the playing space, all while operating within the fiction of the play. The team started calling this process "intake." And it worked. The conceptual model of the intake interview gave the actors a structure to use when improvising with audience members before the show. Functionally, it provided a scenario where it made sense for characters to speak directly to audience members, and supplied the actors with a justification for moving them physically into the actual theatre. On top of that, though, the unequal power dynamic of the medical or psychiatric intake interview, and the sense it carries of being separated from the outside world and placed into some kind of containment, supported the show's intense, lightly sinister atmosphere.

The new subfield of experience design (XD) applies eerily well to the design of theatrical experiences. A descendant of the psychology-based marketing of the '50s, XD usually refers to the design of computer interfaces and virtual environments, but it also applies to any environment where a customer (or audience member) encounters an organization, including Disneyland, the local Whole Foods store and your theatre lobby. 

XD identifies a number of major design factors that impact audience experience; this allows designers to discuss and adjust each one independently. One main factor is the experience's duration, i.e., whether the activity feels like it takes the "right" amount of time, versus too long or not long enough, and whether there is a smooth path from a participant's entry into the experience to the experience's conclusion. Burning Man is a good example of this; it would be a very different event if it were a single weekend long rather than nine days. And an overlong audience activity can be even more frustrating than one that is over before participants feel ready. 

Another XD factor that's helpful for AE design is breadth (how well the experience's different components seem matched and connected to one another). A good example of suitable breadth is San Francisco's Dickens Fair, an immersive theatre event portraying Christmas Eve in Charles Dickens's London. Everything an audience member encounters inside the Fair has been designed to support the theatrical illusion of stepping into another world, from the real sawdust strewn over the concrete floors to hand-painted signs dangling overhead. Cat Taylor, the event's entertainment director, is proud of the event's obsessive attention to detail. She says, "We call it world-building." 

Getting good breadth of experience doesn't require lavish gestures, just apt ones. A smart audience activity can be quite simple and still resonate powerfully with the world of the play. During the run of the documentary theatre piece Tenderloin, for example, Cutting Ball's managing director Suzanne Appel found that the "fastest, cheapest method" of cultivating audience engagement worked wonders: a long, wide strip of plain paper hung in the lobby with the prompt, "What is your Tenderloin story?" that became a graffiti wall covered in audience members' stories.

Appel got the idea for the wall from Campo Santo's Tree City Legends at Intersection, where audience members were invited to write a prayer on a prayer flag before the show. And it was easy to adapt the idea to Tenderloin; the San Francisco Chronicle donated a roll of newsprint, and Appel bought markers. "That was it," she says, "And people loved it so much." 

In terms of breadth—that is, getting the various pieces of the experience to match—the graffiti wall was a success. Tenderloin involved first-person stories from characters who were struggling financially and living in a rough neighborhood; the paper felt flimsy and disposable, the stories people left behind were personal and the multicolored scrawl resembled some of the nearby buildings. The same activity, of course, wouldn't be as effective accompanying a lavishly costumed period piece. As theatre-makers, we know that; XD has a word for it. 

XD is also useful for discussing meaning. It assumes that people seek meaning; therefore, they enjoy experiences that provide meaning; therefore, organizations should learn all they can about how to create experiences that provide people with meaning. Some definitions of XD provide a list of meanings that designers have found useful in discussing the goals of an experience. These include accomplishment (the sense of having achieved something impressive), the experience of beauty, creation (contributing to the birth of something new), community (the sense of being connected to others), duty (the satisfying sense of doing good or living up to one's responsibilities), enlightenment, freedom, harmony, justice (i.e., fairness), oneness, redemption, security, truth, validation and wonder. Obviously, this list doesn't cover all meanings people find significant—and some, such as freedom and security, can conflict—but it can help theatre staffers planning audience engagement activities identify which of the play's themes they hope to foreground with the AE activity. 

Additionally, designers have a process for guiding each project to completion, sometimes called "design thinking." Like theatre, design has undergone a paradigm shift that placed the focus back on the user; the result is "human-centered" or "user-centered" design. According to Dr. Elspeth Golden, a specialist in human-computer interaction and experience design, the very first step is to observe and talk to the people you want to serve about what they actually want—before even deciding on the activity. "You need to talk to people at the very beginning of the design process for anything," she says. "It's not so important what your goals are as it is what their goals are. So if you're trying to design experiences for people and you want to know what they want, the best way to find out is to ask them." 

When asked about some pitfalls of not doing user research, she laughs. "Falling on one's face would be the key pitfall," she says. "Failure is the number one pitfall. You'll create something no one wants and you won't know that no one wants it, or why."

How can theatre-makers use design thinking to try out new audience engagement ideas? Ask Michael Sturtz. An award-winning sculptor before he founded Oakland industrial arts school the Crucible in 1999, Sturtz now serves as director for ReDesigning Theater, a project of Stanford University's design school. There, among other duties, he designs and runs theatre experiments that test different ways of bridging the gap between theatre and audience, testing traditional assumptions about theatregoing with an outsider's pragmatism. "A lot of the work I've been doing here is about disrupting the theatrical space," he says. "How are we incorporating social media and technology into this realm; [how do we create] interaction, engagement and immersion?" 

Another basic tenet of design thinking is that, when trying out a new audience experience idea, it's best to build a simple version first—a prototype—and test it with a small number of people. One prototype Sturtz built with a group of fellowship students was a "text companion" called ShowPal, where a set of people who had purchased tickets to a given show received text messages related to the show. In this experiment, according to Sturtz, the goal was "not changing traditional theatre but changing the audience's interaction with it." Sturtz would then gather the participants after an experiment and interview them about which elements worked and which didn't. "We do try to do a little bit of scientific method," he says, but "it's more about the storytelling of what the user experience was." 

By sending the texts at different times and asking the recipients about their experiences in postshow interviews, for instance, Sturtz's group was able to discern that people responded most positively to messages sent the day before or day of the show. Useful information? You bet. 

The message content also varied. Some texts gave direct, "Did you know?"-style information about the production, while some were more interactive and, according to Sturtz, "more mysterious." For example, some audience members got a text message the day before seeing Curse of the Starving Class directing them to shower and then walk around the house naked at some point before coming to the theatre, an experience that, they would discover, related to an event in the play. So, did all this do more than just make people chilly? Yes, according to postshow interviews; Sturtz and his team found that the experience did, in fact, deepen their connection to the work. 

It's an exciting time to be making theatre. Audience engagement work is a whole new creative territory to explore, with new challenges and new possibilities. And design thinking has so much to offer theatres interested in reaching their audiences more fully. The more we describe, document and share with one another what we're doing—rather than considering a given idea or activity proprietary—the more discoveries we'll make. And every new discovery any theatre makes about engaging audiences can benefit the entire field. 

Laura Brueckner is digital content manager for Theatre Bay Area, and the author of "Bread and Circuits," a TBA Online column on intersections of theatre and technology. She is also a resident dramaturg at Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco.