In the middle part of the last century, the nation’s big advertising firms started hiring behavioral experts with Ph.D.s in psychology under the assumption that advertising might be more effective if the firms knew something about what made consumers tick. While they may have been looking for concrete answers, what they found instead was that buyer behavior changes as fast as the tides.
Since that time, the field of marketing has grown increasingly more detailed and complex, as has our society. While targeted marketing communication used to be able to cut through the cluttered world of promotional messages like a surgeon’s scalpel, it now requires the equivalent of an intercontinental ballistic missile to be heard amid the noise. And if the message isn’t perfect, let alone perfectly timed, it will never be heard.
In the latter part of the 20th century, Danny Newman’s book Subscribe Now!: Building Arts Audiences Through Dynamic Subscription Promotion extolled the virtues of exhaustive promotion campaigns, and led to a nationwide increase in sales for the arts. Newman didn’t set out to explain theatre patrons’ behavior; he proposed ways to get the word out about our art form in a 20th-century context, and it worked—for its time. In its day, Newman’s methods could do their job simply by getting the marketing message out to everyone, in every way possible, to ensure they knew about our wonderful theatrical offerings.
Now just knowing we’re here isn’t enough. In the 21st century, our potential audience wants to understand how our offerings will affect them personally.
About a decade ago, Joanne Scheff Bernstein updated Newman’s thinking with her Arts Marketing Insights, which is now in its second edition under the title Standing Room Only: Marketing Insights for Engaging Performing Arts Audiences. While Bernstein focuses more on marketing theory than Newman ever even considered doing, she provides plenty of her own anecdotes and ideas for how to handle with a modern theatregoing market. Interestingly, it’s in the new subtitle of her book that she introduces one of the field’s ascendant concepts: engaging audiences.
You’ll have heard the word “engagement” and its corollary, “connection,” if you’ve been in arts marketing circles in the past decade. It emerges in Eugene Carr and Michelle Paul’s Breaking the Fifth Wall: Rethinking Arts Marketing for the 21st Century, the blurb for which gives a useful definition: “The book revolves around the idea that arts marketers must ‘break the fifth wall’—the act of reconnecting with arts patrons in a meaningful way after they have left a performance venue—by creatively and regularly reminding them of everything the organization has to offer.”
While the work of Newman, Bernstein, and Carr and Paul, among others, has been useful, it is largely observational: Here’s what works and can be duplicated. None, however, have sought to explain the intrinsic benefit of theatre—the thing it offers that nothing else does.
After all, there are many needs that audiences are meeting when they attend theatre, but we still don’t know why they choose theatre over other alternative activities that might satisfy those same needs. Is it because theatre is live? So are sporting events. Is it because theatre is entertaining? The options for entertainment are almost limitless. Is it because theatre fills a social need? Sure—but so does happy hour at a local bar.
Does it matter if we know why people choose theatre over other offerings, as long we can sell them tickets? Consider that if we better understood why theatre has a unique instrinsic attraction to human beings, we could change the way society views—and values—the art form altogether.
Oddly enough, even as the world has become more globalized, interconnected, and plugged in, the practice of behavioral research for marketing purposes and the promotion of the arts largely haven’t found alignment. That situation appears to be changing, as researchers are now starting to examine the effects of audiences on the arts, and the effects of the arts on audiences. That’s great news for American theatre.
What does the news report?
Consider Triple Play, a research project supported in multiple phases by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundations, Theatre Development Fund, and Theatre Bay Area that set out to explore what would strengthen the relationships between new-work playwrights and the audiences who experience their work. This research was conducted at theatres nationwide and had a sizable volume of participation. The study used two components: a survey that was returned by more than 7,000 single ticket buyers to theatres producing new works, and focus-group interviews with several hundred people nationwide.
The result is a richness of data, and a number of significant takeaways about the attitude of audiences toward new plays and their creators. One item of note: how the age of an audience member changes the way they use and appreciate new plays. It seems that while younger audiences are more adventurous, willing to take risks on new plays, and more interested in nonlinear narratives, they are not willing to pay more for new plays, preferring instead to pay more for established work.
These findings don’t seem aligned; if you prefer more risk, why wouldn’t you be willing to pay a premium for your preference? It seems instead that younger audiences who enjoy adventurous work see their role as contributing to a new play’s development; in return for enjoying a challenging work, the contribution they are willing to make is not cash but merely their interest and participation. Could it be that younger audiences are more interested in being part of the experience than they are in simply shelling out for theatrical entertainment?
Triple Play makes another related discovery. Among the themes that emerge among single-ticket buyers to new works are connection and engagement. As it turns out, people who are drawn to new plays also tend to have a great affinity for activities associated with the play, such as discussions and talkbacks. Those who are not interested in engagement, on the other hand, prefer opportunities for private reflection; the study’s authors wonder how theatres could address and satisfy this need.
Triple Play provides great depth and insight into theatre audiences’ thinking and preferences in 2017, and though it is ultimately more interested in the psychological underpinnings of theatre’s intrinsic value than with how to sell new work, it has undeniable value on both counts.
Also of note was a recent report in The Gerontologist, in which Suzanne Meeks, Sarah Kelly Shyrock, and Russell J. Vandenbroucke discuss a study which set out to consider how theatre affects audience member’s psychological well-being at different ages. While their study, conducted with subscribers to Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky, offers a number of new findings, one that stands out is that, contrary to expected results, younger people feel more engaged and stimulated by theatre attendance than older people do. You read that right: Younger people feel more engaged and stimulated. By theatre!
And, in an echo of Triple Play, the word “engaged” here implies that these younger audience members see themselves as part of the artistic creation. One assumption the researchers make is particularly interesting as well: that younger people are establishing social connections—are perhaps even using theatre for this purpose—while older people are aiming for theatre to enrich the life they’re living. Regardless of how they used theatre to satisfy these personal needs, all age levels reported that theatre attendance contributes to their personal well-being; participants felt that this in turn led to improved community well-being.
Both of those reports happen to align with a research project I recently did with Patrick M. Murnin, which examined people’s recollections of arts participation when they were young, and how that aligns with their arts participation as adults. We found that there are two factors at play in developing an interest and understanding in the arts as a youth: engagement and/or exposure. We wanted to know if arts education—meaning learning the arts in a structured classroom environment, either by being taught how to create art or to appreciate the art—had a greater influence on someone than arts engagement, which we defined as the act of creating art independent of a structured classroom activity. We also looked at arts exposure, such as attending a play or a museum with a class, or with parents or others.
While marketers have long stressed the importance of classroom arts education on youth, we found that arts education is best achieved in conjunction with arts exposure. Young people respond best to being taught about the arts when it involves firsthand exposure to the art, as opposed to walling off the arts education in classrooms. Indeed, it appears that some combination of all these ingredients—arts exposure, education, and art-making engagement—is required to start a child on the path toward a lifelong appreciation of theatre. What we don’t know is if one is more powerful than the other, or which pieces of the mixture are the most and least crucial.
Reading and mulling these three studies together, we may be able to construct a lifelong narrative of theatre appreciation. The path starts in youth; travels through explorations of risky (and risqué) material in young adulthood, when audiences may feel more engaged in supporting the development of the art; and finally shifts to a place where older audience members can fill themselves with introspection from theatre experiences.
It seems that when we say theatre means something different to everyone, we may be referring to disparities in appreciation based on age. This may explain why there is a constant lament that audiences are old and dying—yet they never quite die out. In fact, age-wise our audiences largely remain the same, and with the same demographic breakdown (with the exception that when attendance gets smaller, it is the younger ranks that are usually dropping out). What we are learning is that theatre has different functions for different age levels, and what all three studies suggest is that we cannot afford to ignore any of those levels of engagement.
Like any good research, all three studies raise more questions than they provide answers. But this means we are starting a rich and long overdue exploration of theatre’s value to human beings. We are learning about how theatre can and could make better communities, and ultimately a better world. We are on the precipice; we just haven’t quite made that final leap.
The upshot suggests that theatre may have a much deeper, richer level of importance to humanity than we’ve ever realized. It is more than escapist entertainment or a chance to be engaged intellectually on an important topic. It is starting to look like theatre is a way we regulate and balance our intellectual, emotional, and social needs through various stages of life. If that is the case, and theatre is shown to have intrinsic value beyond a shrinking elite, it will be seem as important to our well-being as clean water and fresh air. Those of us in theatre have known this all along. New research may help prove it to everyone else.
Anthony Rhine is a professor of theatre management at Florida State University and the author of the upcoming Palgrave MacMillan textbook, Theatre Management: Arts Leadership for the 21st Century.