Signalling Expectations

Lately I have been seeing many uses of technology aimed at influencing people to drive more considerately and safely. There is a GPS system that will start to give directions in a child’s voice when the vehicle enters a school zone.

On his show, Crowd Control, Daniel Pink put pictures of people in wheelchairs below disabled parking signs and a non-profit in Russia created holograms of people in wheelchairs, both efforts to deter those who didn’t need the spots from parking there.

All these were attempts to use empathy to shape the decisions people made. A question that came to mind was whether technology has desensitized us to needs of others to the point where steps needed to be taken to reassert the need to take care.

Or is the frequency at which people break these rules roughly at the same point it was 20 years ago and this is a case where technology and clever ideas have advanced to the point they can be used to address violators?

As much as I would like to claim we are ceding ever greater amounts of our humanity to technology, I actually suspect in this case the latter is true.

I wanted to use this as a jumping off point to wonder how ideas like these could be used to instill empathy and good judgement in arts audiences. There have been a lot of stories and discussions about talking, texting and other intrusive behaviors in performances.

Two of the ongoing conversations on these matters that I have been following recently are Diane Ragsdale’s Jumper blog and Scott Walters on the Clyde Fitch Report.

One of Walters’ general themes is that the “churchification” of performing arts has made attendance a stale, boring experience.

I am a little wary about what might result from poorly conceived plans to change that, given that people’s online behavior reveals a willingness to do something outlandish to call attention to themselves if they perceive license to do so. But I can certainly see Scott’s point that some sort of social shift is going to be required.

Since every situation will require different degrees of comportment, cultivating a sense of empathy and good judgement in audiences as to what is required and developing a method for performers to signal what the dynamics of the event are, will likely be the crucial element that will make it all work.

Making a preshow announcement and printing the rules in the program book clearly isn’t working so additional methods, channels, whatever, are needed.

Of course, performing arts venues need to do their part by not always having the same rules for every event. First of all, it is difficult to experiment with different ways of communicating intent and expectations if there is no opportunity for practical application. Second, audiences are already probing the boundaries of those rules. Either the boundaries have to loosen from time to time or audiences may defer on entering the boundaries altogether.

Right now some of the more effective and clear methods of communicating that the usual boundaries are not in effect are when people make a curtain speech announcement that riffs on the traditional speech by emphasizing “We ask that you DO take as many pictures as you want. DO tell your friends about the show by making social media posts during the show…”

That is only effective as long as the archetypal announcement exists to riff on. The goal is to ultimately remove it as an archetype even if the rules are still applied in certain instances.

I would suggest that the need to make announcements of any kind will be the indicator that work still needs to be done. The majority of attendees at a classical music concert intrinsically “know” how to behave there just as attendees at a rock concert “know” different rules apply without being told.

When people can enter a room and pick up general clues about expectations from the way the staff and other attendees are interacting and perhaps a glance around for more formal signifiers to confirm, then we are seeing a measure of success.

If events unfold contrary to expectations, either the event host needs consider whether this means they need to do a better job of signalling expectations or they need to do a better job of heeding the audience’s signaled expectations.

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. (

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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12 thoughts on “Signalling Expectations”

  1. If you want to welcome new people into your audiences, you’d better be getting more explicit about the “rules of the game,” not less. If you are relying on people entering the room and picking up general cues about expectations, then you are limiting your audiences to those who are already familiar enough with the game that they only need vague cues.

    At Santa Cruz Shakespeare, two ushers stand in front of the stage holding “no photos” signs for the hour before the show starts while people are eating their picnic dinners and socializing. The artistic director explains in the opening speech why no recording is permitted, including photos. He also explains what the donations they ask for will be used for (simplifying enormously, of course). These are familiar rituals to those who’ve been to hundreds of plays, but SCS is often the first live theater for many in the audience. Having things explained to them makes them feel more welcomed than if they were just expected to know from “general cues about expectations”.

    • I was generally implying was that if you have to tell people when the exceptions to the usual rules are in effect, you aren’t providing a varied experience frequently enough.

      But you make a good point that the rules can seem capricious if their basis is not explained. Sometimes it is about protecting intellectual property and not bothering people sitting next to you. Other times it is a matter of safety as people engage in stage combat, acrobatics, dance, etc

      • I think that you have it the wrong way around—you should always have to tell people what the rules are. If you don’t have to tell them the “usual rules are in effect, you aren’t providing a varied experience frequently enough.” If you assume that people will already know the usual rules, then you aren’t reaching out to new audiences.

        • My ideal is that you socialize a wide enough segment to a variety of scenarios, that is a a victory. But since there will also be another demographic to be reached, then yeah, I guess there would be a need to have the rules stated somewhere.

          But that sort of thing is only useful and practical up to a point. Life in general is about figuring out the rules. When I go into a restaurant or deli I have never been to before I often have to figure out, do I seat myself? Do I order and sit down and wait to be called? Do they hand me the order here and I go to the cashier or do I go to the cashier and wait until the food gets there?

          It is easy to figure out in chain restaurants because it is standardized, but everywhere else is another story. But generally we have learned what things to watch for to figure out these rules. Most of the time, it is carefully watching what the guy ahead of you does–even if it means pretending you haven’t made a decision yet so you can have someone to watch.

          • Which is why a lot of restaurants have signs at the entrance: “Please wait to be seated”, “Sign in with the host”, “Seat yourself”, … . Places without such signs are generally trying to establish that they are only for the “elite”—if you don’t know what they expect, then you aren’t welcome.

          • That is not really true at all. When I went in to Tim Horton’s for the first time I was given my hot chocolate at the register and my bagel down the line whereas in Starbucks, I generally get my baked goods near the register and my hot chocolate at the end of the line.

            When I am in delis in NYC, it is the same thing. No two places have the same rules and you will get all sorts of stinkeye if you don’t figure it out. Not an elitist setting, but a bit of the attitude. Don’t get me started on ordering your cheese steak the wrong way at Pat or Gino’s in Philly.

  2. I would argue that rules pertaining to “intellectual property” are part of the rules that are restricting creativity in the theater. As far as classical music is concerned, they have the same problem that theater has, and it is just as historically-based as theater’s current rules of behavior. Again, Levine’s “Highbrow/Lowbrow” describes a classical music scene in the past that was highly interactive, and mixed high and low art on the same program. Then a cultural shift occurred as the wealthy wanted to separate themselves from the masses. As with theater, I would ask those in classical music: how’s that working for you? Do you feel as if it has made classical music more popular, relevant, and dynamic or less? Predictably, I would argue less.

    • Yeah exactly my thought as I was writing that, Scott. But the question is, is it possible to get the various unions in the different disciplines to relax their rules? Given that unauthorized recordings have diluted the value of trying to sell anything, maybe. There are other considerations that factor in, of course, but money is often one of the biggest ones so if there isn’t as much to be gained by preserving your image/sound/design as their once was, there might be more wiggle room.

      Of course, easy for me to say since I am not a member of any union or other group that has a stake in such things.

    • As I have thought about it a bit more, I don’t want to lay it entirely on unions either.

      Some of it may be just a matter of custom. There have been contracts we signed that had the boiler plate “thou shalt not allow any recording” stipulations. But when the artist arrived, they were happy to allow anything that didn’t use flash.

      Artists who are interested in having their audiences feel more connected to the experience may need to pressure their agents to use a non-standard contract for their engagements.

      On the topic of changing boundaries, I have had personal experience with a dance company that was really into creating opportunities for flash mob/improvisational experiences outside the theater, but an absolutely merciless late seating policy for their “formal” performance.

      The dichotomy brought me up short. That isn’t the absolute range of variation for which I would be advocating.

      • It likely started with the unions and the people who controlled rights. Now it has become a default. Things get adopted — like, say, no food in the auditorium — that becomes a tradition simply through being taught to succeeding generations. But when you think about it… we’ve had dinner theaters for decades, right? People sold and ate in auditoria throughout theater history. Same with flash photography — ho wmany of us tellthe audience that it is “dangerous” to the actors? But dangerous how? They are up onstage with a hundred bright lights shining in their eyes and a flash going off is dangerous? In my opinion, actors need to be trained in such a way that their concentration is more robust, so that a flash or a cellphone ring doesn’t throw them out of their character. Acting shouldn’t be so damn delicate, and neither should audience concentration.

  3. You’re right—there are non-elite restaurants that try to establish “in-group” and “outsider” experiences. (Here it is “local” vs. “tourist”.) If you are trying to make newcomers welcome, creating the “everyone-knows-the-rules-from-subtle-clues” environments is not the way to go. If you are trying to establish that the rules vary from performance to performance, then it is even more important to be explicit about the rules every time.

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