Asking our audiences

by Jini Stolk

Theatre Passe Muraille has been inserting a simple and appealing audience survey in its show programmes. We Want to Hear From You asks for thoughts about the show (such as “What would you say to a person who has not bought a ticket yet?” and “What part of the show had the greatest impact on you?”) along with the standard “How did you hear about this show?” and the less standard “What neighbourhood are you joining us from?”

I’m a big believer in regularly asking audience members for their thoughts and opinions by way of focus groups and on-line and exit surveys. One of the major successes of Creative Trust’s Audiences Project was our intensive audience interview sessions with Alan Brown, and our research survey on audience engagement.

Among the things we learned is that people like to be asked their opinions.

Passe Muraille spoke to audience members before instituting its 7:30 starting time, which makes it a bit of an outlier in Toronto’s theatre community which has, by and large, stuck with the more traditional 8:00 pm curtain.

I’d like to suggest that we begin asking our audiences whether an 8:00 start still makes sense (or whether, as I’m beginning to think, it’s a small but important disincentive to attendance.)

I have recently been conducting a small and exceedingly unscientific survey about this – being very well aware that my personal demographic, and the demographic of many of my friends, might not indicate a wide-spread yearning for earlier evenings. I’ve therefore been talking to people of all ages who attend all types of shows, and have found a definite enthusiasm for the idea of a 7:30, or even 7:00, curtain. Even among those who like 8:00, a few people added “only if the show is no longer than 90 minutes.” Hmm.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard.

In favor of an earlier curtain time: starting at 8:00 can make for a very late night if I’m going to work the next day; if I go home first for dinner, I often don’t feel like leaving the house again; if I don’t go home for dinner, it gets expensive to eat out every time I see a show; if I go home to walk the dog, I can still get to the theatre before 8:00; if I haven’t paid for my ticket yet, I sometimes just decide not to go; I’ve stopped going to shows in the evenings – but I love weekend matinees; I’ve reached the point where if the program says the show runs 70 minutes I feel like cheering.

In favor of an 8:00 start on weekends but an earlier curtain time during the week: on the weekend it’s great to get together at a restaurant and then go to a show, but it isn’t relaxing to do that during the week; if the show ends early on a weeknight you can still go out for a drink afterwards; I get restless if I know I’m going to get to bed late and be tired the next morning.

For keeping the 8:00 curtain time: it’s easier because you know without thinking when the show starts.

Okay. I repeat, this was an unscientific sampling of people I ran into over the past two weeks. However, we’re all worried about audiences. This discussion of three recent studies of audience trends in the States is a must-read. In addition to confirming that the trend to our south is alarmingly downwards, it identifies reasons why the public attends arts events (socializing with friends or family members, 73%, learning new things, 64%, and supporting the community, 51%), and barriers to attendance (lack of time, 60%, lack of accessibility in terms of location for retirees, elderly, and those with physical disabilities, and lack of an attendee partner, 22%.)

In Canada, StatsCan’s 2010 General Social Survey, while interesting on the overlap in arts attendance between arts disciplines, didn’t include questions about motivations for attendance, but CAPACOA’s 2013 Value of Presenting Study shows that all age groups agree on the most important benefits of arts attendance – “entertainment, fun,” followed by “stimulation”, “experience something new”, “exposure to different cultures”, and “social opportunity”.

What this says to me is that people see our shows for social reasons, first and foremost, and that anything we can do to make it easier for them  is worth trying (or at least worth asking about.) Theatre Passe Muraille’s audiences continue to be happy with an earlier curtain, and although I have no doubt that some companies’ audiences will opt for an 8:00 pm start, I bet that others would welcome a change.

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