Stuff To Ponder: Focus Exercises For Audiences

Given that I am working on a university campus, there is always a conversation about how do you get more students to attend performances at the performing arts center. One of the easiest answers is to offer extra credit or have students attend and then write some sort of paper on the experience.

I have reservations about this course of action given many years of experience with such programs. If students are not majoring in the arts, but are taking an “introduction to” course figuring the class will be an easy “A,” the results are often less than desirable.

It isn’t so bad if only a few students are taking intro courses during the semester, but if there are multiple sections of large lecture hall size classes, the students all tend to attend on the night that will least impact their weekend plans and that audience is markedly different from any other audience.

In some respects, it is almost better to play in front of a half empty room than a full room where only a few people respond to the performance.

I should note for the record that this isn’t a great concern of mine on my current campus since the intro classes are smaller and fewer students are being directly induced to attend. However, as I mentioned yesterday I dislike the idea of people viewing attendance at the arts as a trial to be endured.

In the course of a recent discussion, I had an idea for a general assignment related to attending an arts event that took the focus of the requirement off the performance itself and might get them in a receptive frame of mind for the performance

Basically, I was inspired by John Cage’s 4’33”. My thought was to assign students to arrive 15-30 minutes early for a performance. Turn off their cell phones and just sit and observe without speaking or interacting for 4’33”. After that, they could make notes about what they observed and then sit back and take the performance as they found it.

The benefit of this assignment is that it is flexible enough to be used by many liberal arts disciplines. Music students could focus on sounds; actors, sociology and psychology students on how people interact; fine arts students on the light in the room; literature students could use the observations as the basis of a short story or poem.

Students majoring in an arts discipline would need to be paying close attention throughout the evening and prepare to generate more involved papers and presentations.

But for students who may be attending a performance for the first time, their assignment is done before the curtain rises. Hopefully the engaging in the process of focusing on observing what was going on around them ends up puts them in frame of mind where they are ready to receive the performance.

If students are told the assignment only requires them to observe the pre-show activity, but they are free to include observations from the entire performance, maybe that assists in helping people maintain their focus throughout, diminishes resentment about their grade depending on attendance and the desire to check the cellphone too frequently.

I would love to see someone conduct a study to see if there is any noticeable increase in attention or enjoyment for first time or infrequent attendees after performing a simple exercise to focus their thoughts and attention just prior to the experience.

I am sure there are plenty of studies on the benefits of visualization for athletes, but that is based on past experience and a knowledge of ideal performance. It would be interesting to know if there is any benefit for those venturing into unknown territory.

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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