Focus Group or Story Circle

In my last post (Reinventing the Wheel), I talked about Roadside Theater’s use of story circles in script development and relationship building. It was presented as one example of how arts organizations that have long focused on grassroots relationships have much to teach the rest of the arts community. In response, Roadside’s director, Dudley Cocke, contacted me to amplify my point:

Very few people have understood that all of Roadside’s work is of one piece, not only steered by common values but resting on shared assumptions, theoretical frameworks, and methodologies. In short, there exists a Roadside paradigm, and your example of our use of story circles is a good one. This relationship with the audience extends to the performance itself: Our goal is for the play to occur neither entirely on the stage nor entirely in the heads and hearts of individual audience members, but rather in a third, metaphysical, communal space. (Little wonder theater’s roots are in spiritual gatherings.)  Certain aesthetic choices follow from this goal: minimal sets; an emphasis on the actors being so good that the audience members see through them to the story itself — and themselves in the story; a hidden role for the director; and more. This is very different than the art of ME in this ego driven era. Thus in the interview:

Our audience diversity success [DB’s Note: Roadside’s diversity statistics are amazing. As one example, a Lila Wallace-RDF study found that in the 1980’s 73% of their audience earned less than $50,000 a year and 30% of those earned $20,000 or less annually.] derives in part from our artistic understanding that the audience is part of the show. Often it seems like our plays occur in some third, ephemeral space, which is neither where the audience is seated, nor is it on the stage where the actors are playing. Remember, there is no fourth wall, and we prefer non-proscenium spaces. This intimacy and the opportunity for spontaneous call and response between the audience and actors can cause what I can only describe as a levitating effect. It’s probably akin to what athletes describe as “being in the zone,” but in the theatre of participation, everyone can go there together — and without losing their individuality.

This is true seriousness of intent about engagement, being “of” the community. They structure their work and methods around that intent.

Coincidentally, Trevor O’Donnell just posted a good essay on do-it-yourself focus groups: Cheap, Easy Research Tip 3: Eavesdrop. Focus groups are important marketing tools. However, the coincidence of my thinking about story circles and Mr. O’Donnell’s discussion of focus groups made me consider the relationship between the two. At the risk of over-simplification, one way to think of them is that story circles are focus groups designed to build deep relationships.

One of my particular interests is in showing how community engagement can be “mainstreamed.” No one has time to do more things; however if we can re-orient the thinking behind what we already do, engagement will be much more likely to be pursued. In this instance, the point is that the only way to develop relationships with the community is to talk to people in it (and listen). Focus groups do that and are an important element of traditional marketing. If they are only slightly re-imagined as relationship-building vehicles (perhaps as story circles), we might accomplish several valuable things at the same time. I know this could skew the results of the “research,” but it might be a worthwhile skewing.

Think about mainstreaming and



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