Patrons With Old Wounds

A month ago while discussing audience participation and Great Lakes Theater Company Artistic Director’s feeling that babyboomers rather than young people craved interactive experiences at performances, I wondered aloud:

“It occurred to me that as people with training in the arts, we know about the history. But do our audiences in general know? Do they yearn to shout praise or insults and stay away because they can’t? Is the ability to do so something people would value so much they would start attending if they could?”

I was reminded today that while those who may value interactive experiences may not explicitly state their desires, those who would prefer more passive interaction definitely voice their opinions on the matter.

I had sent out an email newsletter yesterday mention an upcoming performance of Alice in Wonderland. In response I received an email from a patron stating the last time she attended she had an unpleasant experience due to people being allowed to be loudly interactive with the performers. Because she did not want to chance another bad experience, she wouldn’t be attending our performances any time soon.

I looked up her purchase records to try to discern what show might have offended her and found that our last attendance record is 4 years old. All that means is that she hasn’t purchased advance tickets in four years. She could have easily purchased tickets at the door or come with a friend and we didn’t capture her name.

My suspicion is that she probably attended one of our free end of semester student performances which tend to be pretty raucous or a Mexican music concert a couple years ago where the band encouraged the audience to sing along. Those are the only performances I can recall where we have received complaints similar to hers. We have also received praise from attendees who enjoyed the high energy atmosphere of these shows.

However…she was obviously so upset by the experience that she continues to be bothered months, if not years, later and she wanted to let us know that she still holds it against us.

I don’t want to advocate for maintaining the status quo, but I do think it is important to remember people like this woman when you start to consider moving toward more interactive experiences. Ask yourself who is more loyal, the people who will hate the changes or the people who will embrace them? Is there a way you can gradually phase in a change of dynamics or do you feel the shift is desperately needed to retain or attract an audience?

If you have read my blog for any length of time, you have probably gotten the sense that I don’t think there is anything to gain by completely catering to those that value the status quo. Pacing of a change over a long period of time can signal a commitment to the new course to your existing supporters without alarming them and assure your target audience that the changes aren’t a superficial attempt to pander to them.

We know people are staying away because their perception of the attendance experience isn’t appealing, but we don’t know how many would regularly attend if changes were made and how apt they would be to return on a regular basis. We know much more about those who do attend on a regular basis, but as the oft spoken mantra goes, they are dying off or retiring to Florida.

The bigger challenge to most arts organizations is discerning the a constructive course of action based on feedback. Those who support your course of action are rarely as vocal about it as those who despise it and it is hard not to react to the stronger emotional response. Supporters who feel you are on the correct course will say nice things in the lobby. Six months later, they may respond to a mailing with “looking forward to the show” which fade in the face of “I am never coming to see a show again based on my six month old experience!”

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 ( 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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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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