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Captive Audience

February 16, 2009

Arts organizations and individual artists employ a variety of different techniques for soliciting audience feedback about their work. The most commonly and innocuous method involves giving out audience surveys during a show or at an exhibition or asking people to complete questionnaires online, sometimes in return for entry into a draw for free tickets or a backstage tour or somesuch.

On occasion, particularly in a live performance or movie test-screening scenario, groups and artists will ask audiences if they'd like to participate in a post-show discussion about the work. I don't generally find these sorts of conversations to be very effective, particularly in the U.S., as audiences tend to be very polite here and only seem to say flattering things -- at least to the artists' faces.

Over the weekend, an artist whose solo show I experienced went a stage further: He put the entire audience on the spot immediately after his performance. Providing feedback was apparently required of everyone who turned up to see the show.

It wasn't a comfortable experience and I kind of felt hijacked. For one thing, I didn't know until I arrived at the theatre that evening that I would be experiencing a preview rather than a full performance of the show. The fact certainly wasn't stated in any of the press materials or on the theatre company's website. For another, it wasn't until after the applause at the end that the artist strode back on immediately and insisted on having a pow-wow with everyone in the room about his work. Leaving wasn't an option.

While soliciting feedback in this way seems to me to alienate audiences more than draw them to you, I'm not sure this approach was useful for the artist either. No one in the room had time to collect their thoughts. And those that did weren't about to say anything constructive. What happened was that we all sat there for about ten tense minutes with the artist sitting before us in a chair. He asked a few questions and got mumbled responses. A couple of audience members made platitudinous comments. Then, when it seemed like the conversation wasn't going to take off in any meaningful way, the artist thankfully excused us and let us out.

I'm hard-pressed to think of a more ineffective way of getting feedback from an audience. Surveys seem much more productive in comparison. If I had been the artist, I would have a) warned people properly in advance that they would be attending a preview and that I would be soliciting their feedback, and b) simply left a pile of business cards on a table after the show with a quick announcement asking people to send an email or call with comments in the coming days. I certainly wouldn't have tried to engage theatregoers in a critical conversation immediately after the show without giving them the option to leave.

3 Comments:

  • That's a great story Queenie. I wish I had been there to feel the uncomfortableness. Maybe not. We just do not do it that way, do we? And why not?

    Because we don't like being put on the spot. We just want to sneak in and sneak out safely and without being judged, right? Film allows this.

    Theatre isn't so easy-going is it?. Once we are in the room we are a part of the show. A very dangerous proposition. That.

    You were cornered. It's uncomfortable. Well, we know what cats do when they are cornered. They wail and scratch and bite their way out of it. Too bad nobody in your audience was brave enough to go animal on him.

    Sounds like something he may have wanted. Willing to take on a few scars, he put his face out there. Brave? Stupid? Wrong?

    Maybe he is a mind reader and just needed to be in the room with you all, looking in your eyes and reading your brows, to know how you really felt.

    Couldn't he have just done that during the show?

    Usually you can tell these sort of things during a show. That's when the audience is on the proper spot. And it's our duty, as I see it, to express ourselves whilst it is happening. Don't you think?

    If performers
    want more truth
    than that they can
    buy us a drink and see what happens.

    Mr. Stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At February 16, 2009 at 1:40 PM  

  • I do apologize again for any misrepresentation you felt about last weekends previews.

    I have to admit that when I saw your write up in the Weekly and saw that you were coming to the show, I was terrified. I thought, "Oh no! But, it's only a preview!"

    I did not realize that both of these occurances might have come about due to a lack of communication on our part.

    I am happy you saw it even in it's rough form but I did not know you had the impression that it was a finished show or that there would be no talk back. Below is the link to my email newsletter that I sent out (my newsletters are pages from my blogspot.) I always thought that you were on this email list of mine but seaching through my new email service I came to discover that you were not. I apologize for that, receiving this email probably would have helped.

    http://christiancagigal.blogspot.com/2009/01/it-is-nearly-time.html#links





    I will email you the Press Release we sent out. The subject line does state it was a Preview, although the body does not state it again, maybe that needed to happen.



    And, you are correct the website did not state it was a preview at all and I am embarrased that I did not catch that.



    I thought I had warned the audience one more time before the show about the talk back afterwards. That was the only reason I ever meant to do the speech at start of the show. I had done it all the other nights and I guess that's why things went much better those times.



    However, I believe the problems we discussed with my energy and performance that night were starting much earlier in the evening and so I slipped and didn't warn the audience before the show and night just snowballed from there.

    As I told you over the phone the other talk backs went much better and the reasons are probably obvious now. Another reason they went well I believe is because I am not a theatre company with a director or artistic director the audience has barely met directing the discussion. My audiences literally come in contact with me the performer and get to know me during (what is normally) an hour and forty five minute show and many of the repeat patrons are "friends" on different social net-working sites; occasionally we even share personal messages and such. The air is/was much different for me with my audiences so, I felt much more comfortable having a talk back with them and it appeared they felt comfortable telling me what they liked and did not like in return.



    But, again I apologize if we upset you at all. That was not our intention. You have always been great to small theatre in SF, especially us at the EXIT and I thank you for that.



    Until Next Time,

    Christian Cagigal
    Magician/Actor
    Artist in Residence-EXIT Theatre

    By Blogger Christian Cagigal, At February 19, 2009 at 1:57 PM  

  • As to Mr. Stick. I'm sorry this upset so much even without being there. To be honest, this is a very diffent style and genre of magic and theatre I have been entering. Very few, if any, have explored this terrain and so there is no map for what I am trying to accomplish.

    I am doing things in ways that scare the living daylights out of me. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Example: I have come to discover that silence at the end of a magic effect is not always a bad thing, in fact it's sometimes stronger than laughter and applause.

    But, that's not the traditional way of approaching what I do. Magic is supposed to be light fare, good times and "pass the soda crackers".

    So while I pretend to read minds on stage it's only an illusion. And, when you start throwing in things like "magical stereo scopes" and creepy dolls ( my previous show) one can't begin to imagine how that will work. Amazingly people have loved it. BIG SURPISE TO ME!

    So, yes I do need to ask people how they felt about it when I make a new show because traditional videoing at the back of the theatre just doesn't cut it for me anymore. And, as you read above, I thought we had made it clear it was a preview. I would never do a talk back otherwise. That's when the beers come in.

    Too bad you weren't there Mr. Stick to go animal on me. I still would have bought you a drink after.

    Christian

    By Blogger Christian Cagigal, At February 19, 2009 at 2:02 PM  

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