ACA Week: Joe Heimlich on Evaluating Theatre Audience Outcomes

Hi.  I’m Joe E. Heimlich, a professor at Ohio State University in Extension, based at a science center.  I work with all sorts of museums and increasingly with performing arts organizations and presenters.  I’ve been fortunate to be able to do some interesting evaluation with jazz groups, theatre productions, dance troupes, and now a symphony.  I’d like to share some challenges I’ve discovered in evaluation of theatre.

Theatre productions are often seen as ‘educational’ and there are many theatre organizations doing school-based programming, outreach, training, and community workshops where the production is used to engage learners and to lead to discussions and subsequent activities. Most resources on theatre evaluation refer either to this type of educational theatre or to evaluation of the technical aspects of the production.  It is only recently that theatre companies have begun to evaluate outcomes of the production audience.

In doing evaluation work, theatre companies often struggle with defining audience outcomes and question the value of doing such work.  The challenge for the evaluator is twofold:

1) engaging the company toward a shared understanding of how evaluation can facilitate the company’s success, especially for companies building productions and theatres attempting to change programming; and

2) gathering data in a situation where the standard practice is to vacate the theatre as rapidly as possible.

Put yourself in the seat as a theatre patron, and reflect on how you would respond to a request to engage in providing your insights and feedback.  Timing is everything, and creating multiple data points with fewer questions at any one time is important.

Lessons learned:

  • In developing an understanding of the production or outreach effort, break evaluation questions into as many ‘staged’ points as possible.  Isolate different entry characteristics, expectations, and dispositions, and desired outcomes and intentions, and measure them across different nights with different audiences (dealing with day of week or time of performance bias, of course).   As individuals enter they may be asked to complete a 1 page pre-measure or a short interview.  Some change or affect responses can be obtained mid-point during intermission.  When a post-production questionnaire is necessary, I randomly place a one page (actually, 4.25×8.5 inch format) in programs, provide golf pencils, and have the director or an actor request participation from the stage at the beginning and end of production.
  • Discussion groups are powerful when appropriate, and are usually done by invitation and held post-production.
  •  For bigger studies, using subscriber and single-ticket buyer lists is handy for mail/web-based questionnaires.

Rad Resources:

  • A great summary of museum theatre (slightly different animal but the studies are good)

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Arts, Culture, and Audiences (ACA) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACA members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluator.

1 thought on “ACA Week: Joe Heimlich on Evaluating Theatre Audience Outcomes”

  1. Dr. Joe!
    G’day and Howdy from Killeen, Texas — neighbor to Fort Hood and location of Texas A&M University – Central Texas (TAMUCT), Home of the Warriors! (No, we are not “Step-Aggies!”)

    From August 2013 to Spring 2014, I was enrolled as a full-time Post 9/11 G.I. Bill student at Rockford University in Rockford, Illinois where I was pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) and working as a full-time Guest (Substitute) Teacher and itinerant Actor. Hence, I had numerous opportunities to attend and participate as an audience member to a variety of productions in the greater Chicago area.

    Upon my return home to Killeen, and subsequent transfer to TAMUCT to matriculate a Masters of Education (M.Ed.) in Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) – Special Education (SPED), with an eye on a doctorate in Theatre from the University of Texas at Austin (UT-A), I have enjoyed a number of diverse performances in Central Texas.

    Also, as as educator, my service includes full-time employment as a public high school theatre arts teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina and Rock Hill, South Carolina. Additionally, I have a modest number of professional or industry credits whilst working in the Southeast region of the USA as well.

    I share these points to provide a foundational basis as I might share comments pertinent to your blog.

    * Directors inviting patrons to share their responses during pre-show and intermissions via your suggested questionnaire or short interview using volunteers from the company’s Board of Directors and/or production staff.

    * Performers (Actors, Dancers, Musicians, Singers) connecting with patrons at the completion to their show using those same methods as noted.

    * Touchscreens, with appropriate assistive technology, located in the foyer or lobby to capture data from patrons with special needs.

    * Artists and production staff (“Actors and Techies”) visiting schools or attending civic group meetings to gather information whilst performing a scene or conducting a demonstration of a particular technical production element. This would provide additional support to programs such as the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) “Theatre In Our Schools” initiatives.

    Teachers, as artists and educators, need to understand: we are performers. Our young audiences are multicultural, multilingual, running a rainbow spectrum of ages, sizes, sophistications and temperaments.

    We stand center stage; delivering our best presentations eight hours a day, five days a week, roughly 180 “performances” each academic year. We should rightly serve as a vanguard to the evaluations on- and off- campus.

    Many thanks in sharing your information in this blog.

    I look forward to reviewing future updates.

    As always, and ever, in Service,
    Capt. Rick. ;-D

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