Should theatres listen to consultants?

An American consulting firm is offering statistical advice to programmers. Should playwrights be worried?

Program Notes Across the Pond!  Originally posted by George Hunka on the performing arts blog for the UK's The Guardian Unlimited:

Playwright Jason Grote, who will be attending the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver this June, blogged last week on the topic of one of NPAC's breakout sessions, "Stop Taking Attendance and Start Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Your Programs." The session is based on a study released by the consulting firm WolfBrown in January 2008, "Assessing the Intrinsic Impacts of a Live Performance". (Confusingly, for a report that wants to present precise figures, the date on the cover of the report that I printed out is "January 2007".)

Grote, I think, worries too much. While study authors Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak seem to know quite a bit about marketing and statistical matrices, it turns out they don't seem to know very much about art (they call a work of art's context "grease on the wheels of impact", which had me giggling). More than anything else, the report reads like one of the wifty rationalist projects that Jonathan Swift effectively destroyed in the third book of Gulliver's Travels.

In order to assess the impact of a work of art, Brown and Novak came up with six "impact constructs." A "Captivation Index" "characterizes the degree to which an individual was engrossed and absorbed in the performance"; an "Intellectual Stimulation Index" "encompasses several aspects of mental engagement, including both personal and social dimensions, which together might be characterized as 'cognitive traction.'" Seemingly objective, but not really: as usual, the authors' artistically conservative slip is showing. The "Emotional Resonance Index" "measures the intensity of emotional response, degree of empathy with the performers and therapeutic value in an emotional sense." Brecht's decidedly non-empathetic theatre isn't even in their sights. A form of drama like that of Howard Barker or Sarah Kane, which denies that theatre should be "therapeutic" at all, is likely to be entirely off WolfBrown's radar.

Responding to Grote's demurral at another blog, Brown demonstrated his own high ranking on the Irritability Index. "Mr. Grote's knee jerk reaction to the idea of the study, without even reading it, is an unfortunate illustration of how some artists and curators hide behind the kryptonite shield of their artistic license while their institutions grow sadly out of touch with audiences and community," Brown protested.

Neither a work of art nor a marketing study exists in a vacuum, of course. While the authors believe that the study's impact scores "should not be used as a means of evaluating or comparing artists or the worthiness of their performances", Wolf and Novak hope that the information "might be used by presenters in understanding the consequences of their programming choices and reaching higher levels of effectiveness in their work". It's naive, though, to think that ultimately programmers and curators, in a time of shrinking support for the arts, may not accept and reject work for their seasons based upon the narrow "impact constructs" that WolfBrown defines. They might even hire WolfBrown to conduct a study to see what kinds of work they should programme.

But that's what the study is - a sales brochure offering WolfBrown's services to the attendees of the conference. Most presenters and producers are smarter than that, though. Before writing out a check to WolfBrown, they'll spend the money on a new production instead.

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May 1, 2008 7:04 PM | | Comments (0)

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Be sure to check in all week for continuous blogging from NPAC.  Attendees from across art forms and job functions report on their conference experiences. Comments from the convention and beyond are welcome!

Reporting from NPAC:

Amanda Ameer
- web manager, NPAC
Sarah Baird - media and public relations executive, Boosey & Hawkes
Joseph Clifford - outreach and education manager, Dartmouth College Hopkins Center for the Arts
Lawrence Edelson - producing artistic director, American Lyric Theater
James Egelhofer - artist manager, IMG Artists
Ruth Eglsaer - program consultant, Free Night of Theater NYC
Jaime Green - literary associate, MCC Theatre
James Holt - membership and marketing associate, League of American Orchestras
Michelle Mierz - executive director, LA Contemporary Dance Company
Mark Pemberton - director, Association of British Orchestras
Mister MOJO - star, MOJO & The Bayou Gypsies
Sydney Skybetter - artistic director, Skybetter and Associates
Mark Valdez - national coordinator, The Network of Ensemble Theaters
Amy Vashaw - audience & program development director, Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State
Scott Walters - professor, University of North Carolina at Asheville
Zack Winokur - student, The Juilliard School
Megan Young - artistic services manager, OPERA America

Please note: the entries posted by the attendees above represent their personal impressions, not the viewpoints of the organizations they work for.

About this blog From April 1 through June 9, 2008, weekly entries will be posted here by some of the performing arts community's top bloggers. This 10-week intensive blog will serve as a unique forum for digital debate and brainstorming, and both the entries and comments will be archived for use at the live NPAC sessions in June.  New entries will be posted every Monday morning. Please note: the views expressed in this blog represent those of the independent contributors and participants, not the National Performing Arts Convention.

NPAC - the National Performing Arts Convention - will take place in Denver, Colorado on June 10-14, 2008. "Taking Action Together," NPAC will lay the foundation for future cross-disciplinary collaborations, cooperative programs and effective advocacy. Formed by 30 distinct performing arts service organizations demonstrating a new maturity and uniting as one a sector, NPAC is dedicated to enriching national life and strengthening performing arts communities across the country. Click here to register, and we'll see you in Denver!

The Authors Jaime Green, Nico Muhly, Kristin Sloan, Jason Grote, Jeffrey Kahane, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Greg Sandow, Hilary Hahn, Tim Mangan, Paul Hodgins, Richard Chang and Andrew Taylor!

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