Engaging Audiences face to face

by Jini Stolk

You can learn a lot from participating in a survey of almost 3,700 audience members – as the 20 music, theatre, dance and opera companies who took part in Creative Trust’s study of performing arts attenders in Toronto discovered. But the survey results really hit the fan when you’re sitting across a table from someone who regularly attends your shows, hearing directly from them what they like and don’t like about the experience.

Over two packed weekends this winter, Alan Brown led 18 companies through an intensive process that sometimes felt like a French farce: the theatre fan is hurried into an interview room, while the dance aficionado is quickly escorted to the elevators…

Amazingly it all went smoothly and over 80 people who had filled out the Audience Engagement Survey and indicated their willingness to be interviewed, got an opportunity to express their feelings and opinions on their experience with the organizations they frequent. Articulate and passionate about their engagement with the art, they were able to respond to questions with tremendous detail and personal conviction.

Lesson #1: People want to be heard. Although many of them were confused by the meaning of “audience engagement”, they came out in the snow and cold to talk about the work they love

What did we learn? Well, to generalize, theatre audiences tended to see mostly theatre, and felt strong connection to the script, the actors and the ideas in plays. Dance audiences tended to be cultural omnivores, experiencing many types of arts, while music audiences expressed an almost spiritual connection to the music.

Most felt deeply about the intimacy of being in a theatre, sharing an experience that is rich in meaning with others in the audience. There is “something that is hair raising that only happens in live theatre,” according to one interviewee – a connection between the performance and audience that is immediate and visceral.

The companies were looking for insights into how to help people find a deeper connection to the art. Perhaps they would appreciate a greater understanding of why the artistic director chose that particular piece, or a bit of background on what the composer or choreographer was trying to convey.

In the workshop session afterwards, Alan told us that research shows that meaningful engagement activities lead to more frequent and satisfying attendance. Whether a company offers program notes online, YouTube videos of dance excerpts, or an intimate discussion with the artists at the bar after a show – it is contributing to the totality of artistic engagement of its audiences.

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