Audience Theory

As wonderful an opportunity it was to influence staff workplaces, those of us in the PACE advisory group still understood that the success of the building would be in how comfortable audiences were interacting with the space. When I was preparing to travel to Bellevue, I was mindful of Andrew Taylor’s observations wandering around the streets of Denver at the National Performing Arts Conference that

“block after block of glass or stone walls at the street level, many of them without a door (at least an open one) for hundreds of feet at a time. As a result, there are very few people populating the street, stopping to talk with each other, people watching, lingering, and realizing they’re in an urban streetscape of diversity and energy.”

I approached the facility design with the intention of insuring the building appeared engaging to foot traffic since there are quite a few residential complexes being constructed nearby.

The importance of physical design was actually reinforced for me as we walked to the meeting with the architects. About four-five blocks from the future PACE site, we passed a small area next to the sidewalk with hedges and benches. There was a sign noting that the area was open for public use. I would have never known that because of the way the hedges and a short set of ascending stairs lent it a sense of being private property. Because of this they had to essentially grant people permission to enter.

But to back up a little…. I had mentioned earlier that Alan Brown made a presentation on the value of live performance. Obviously, it is in relation to the audience’s experience that his thoughts are most applicable. It wasn’t until after his presentation that I realized how significant a moment in the design process it had been. The architects and project manager had never really had these ideas addressed in connection with their work before and so were pretty attentive and taking notes. The same was true for a couple board members who were present.

Of the concepts he covered, a number of them caught my attention. The first was his suggestion that interactive experience the Nintendo Wii offers predicts one day being able to virtually perform with Pilobolus. Since he is the first person I have met who has advanced this idea since I began promoting it in 2004, he instantly endeared himself to me.

He also addressed the situation where people were waiting longer and longer to buy their tickets. He spoke of a focus group where he basically discovered young people were afraid to buy a ticket until the last minute because committing to one option closed the door on all the other possibilities. I wondered if this was an element of Generation Y’s problem with decision making.

He said he asked them to describe what they would envision as a perfect jazz club. They said it would be a coffee house during the day but a bar at night with a separate room where those who wanted to be full immersed in the music could go. However, there would also be an anteroom where people could talk with friends and still listen to the music and still another anteroom where people could interact with friends more and listen less.

It seems like a tall order to design a building to provide this experience. However the impression I took away from what Brown had to say was that people at every age really desire an experience at an intermediate stage between listening to a recording and fully attending a formal concert. He described this as a place to drop in and hang out and get more information. One suggestion he made which he certainly did not represent as encompassing all possibilities was having kiosks in the lobby where one could try all sorts of new music. (I imagined something like the listening stations in record stores.) Having a DJ mixing in an area surrounded by comfortable lobby furniture.

Alan Brown’s presentation had a tangible effect on the discussions that followed. The building design already allowed for many of the activities he mentioned so conversations revolved around the possibilities. This is fortunate because if Brown is right, there might be an increased necessity of having such a space as venue for value added benefits. Acknowledging that there are some people who are voracious for an educative experience, Alan Brown proposed that while arts organizations gave education away for free as part of their mission, he suspected people would pay a premium for a private, executive briefing on events.

I have read and heard suggestions that were related to the core idea behind this. There are some complexities to this that I haven’t fully considered so I don’t quite know what I think about this. I suspect for some communities and organizations, he is right on the money with this idea.

As you might imagine from the thought the PACE administration put into the staff work areas, there had been some investment into the design of the public areas as well. As I already mentioned, the layout lends itself to sponsoring some of the programs and features Alan Brown suggested. Some other notable concepts they had were arranging the ticket office so one’s experience was more akin to interacting with a concierge than a reinforced security checkpoint. They have also looked into situating the restrooms so that the lines at intermission don’t become the half time show.

Our advice seemed to be viewed as insightful and even viable within the overall plan and budget. I am demurring on many of the details because so much is undecided at this stage in the game and I don’t want to create any unwarranted expectations about the ultimate result. Participating in the process was very exciting and engaging. While our status as outsiders lent some weight to our observations, Alan Brown’s occasional, but well timed comments lent some reinforcement.

Believe it or not after all this writing, I still have some additional observations to make! My next entry will have some really basic suggestions for those who might want to replicate this exercise.

(Details of this entry have been altered since the original posting to comply with confidentially agreements)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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