In Praise of Spoilers (and a plug for Jacob’s Pillow)

Jacob's PillowI have been invited to participate in a Pillow Talk discussion at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival on July 11 (5 p.m. for those heading to The Berkshires this weekend). “Talking About Dance” will be moderated by Scholar-in-Residence Maura Keefe and also includes Christine Jowers from Dance Enthusiast and Nancy Wozny from CultureMap Houston and Dance Magazine.

I’m a big fan of the audience engagement programming at Jacob’s Pillow, which includes Pillow Talk panels and interviews, pre-show lectures by the Scholar-in-Residence, post-show dialogues, tours, films, open house community events, a wonderful library/archive and a rich website. These varied opportunities fit the description for organization-hosted audience learning communities I describe in Audience Engagement and Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era because they:

1) create a conscious relationship with the audience that is transparent in its goals,

(2) offer productive facilitators and/or facilitation structures that ask, listen, and request rather than tell, lecture, or direct,

and

(3) begin and end with the audience’s interests in mind.

I like the way former executive director Sali Ann Kreigsman once described the goal of the Pillow audience programming: to “prepare an audience to meet the art and artist half-way; to bring more of the dance experience to them, and to bring more of them to dance.” Her description points to several key conditions of effective engagement: transparency; a sense of equality between audience member and artist; the need for everyone in an artistic exchange to “meet” rather than only to give or receive. But the one I’m going to focus on today is all in the timing: many of these events are preshow experiences. And for an important reason.

Learning science tells us that one of the ways in which adults decide to stay with a learning process of any kind (including sitting in a theater and watching a dance that is new to us) is through transparency; that is, clearly identifying what is to be learned. This is because transparency of the learning plan offers adults the opportunity to appropriately organize their thinking. As I explore in detail in my book, prior knowledge about what is to come enhances not only the learner’s capacity to grasp the new information but also their pleasure in receiving it.

Which reminds me of a favorite Jacob’s Pillow anecdote. At a pre-show talk in the summer of 1997, then Resident Dance Historian David Gere discussed the way choreographer Mark Morris uses music in his work and gave specific visual examples from one of the pieces on the program to illustrate his points. At that evening’s concert, the “audience spontaneously burst into applause right after those passages. There was a delight in that familiarity.’’

Some arts workers might take exception to this approach to audience engagement. Some might argue that Gere committed a spoiler by getting in the way of an audience member’s individual path to understanding. But as a recent report out of the University of California demonstrates, spoilers can be good for audience engagement. In a study conducted at the San Diego campus, three types of stories were presented in their original format (that is, without a spoiler), with a spoiler paragraph added as a preface to the story, or with that same paragraph incorporated into the story itself. The results are startling: “Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck. The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.”

One explanation for this unexpected finding, according to the researchers, is that “once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier—you’re more comfortable processing the information—and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

Psychologists use the term “fluency”—the ease with which we are able to process information—to describe this phenomenon. Not surprisingly, we are considerably more fluent at processing familiar art forms/works than we are at processing those that are new to us. Repeated exposure or exposure to “typical” forms is related to high fluency, and high fluency is experienced as positive. Which, as we all know, is a problem for arts organizations whose mission is to present new work and challenging forms.

The various pre-show talks and panel discussions at Jacob’s Pillow help counter the fluency problem by providing enough information before a dance viewing experience to alleviate our biological/cognitive resistance to the new. The ideas that surface during those events help prepare the audience for a richer experience inside the concert hall; they grease the learning wheel.

For some arts-goers, too much advance information and preparation for watching a work of art may lessen the journey of wondering (thanks to Miles de Klerk for this evocative turn-of-phrase). But as the successful audience engagement programming at Jacob’s Pillow makes clear, spoilers don’t spoil.

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