There Are No Small Theaters, Just Theaters Who Think They Are Small

I wrote last week about how small nuances that alter our perception of a situation can make a big difference.  Back in 2009 I wrote another post along the same lines featuring a TED talk by Rory Sutherland.

At the time I felt the following bit Sutherland imparted was worth consideration for arts organizations. I wrote,

….at the end of his talk where he cites a quote “Poetry is when you make new things familiar and familiar things new.” Though in the case of the arts and current attendance trends, the familiar may be an entirely new experience.

He says it isn’t a bad definition of what advertising people’s job is: “To help people appreciate what is unfamiliar. But also to gain a greater appreciation and place a far higher value on those things that are already existing.”

Now that I have gone back and watched the video again, along with two other similar TED Talks he gave, I have a slightly different perspective. If you have been reading my blog recently, you may have seen my post about the importance of the physical environment surrounding an arts experience.

The challenge for a lot of arts organizations is that they may be operating out of older buildings that don’t have the newest technology and amenities. In his talks, Sutherland emphasizes that it is often more important to fix the perception rather than the problem.

He mentions that people were more satisfied with their experience in subways when digital displays of the next train’s arrival time were installed. It didn’t make the trains arrive any faster, but it removed the sense of uncertainty about how long one might have to wait.

In the UK, Sutherland says, the post office had a 98% rate of delivering first class mail by the next day and nearly destroyed themselves trying to improve that rate. The worst part is, when asked people guessed the next day delivery success rate averaged at about 50%-60%. Sutherland says it would have been cheaper and more effective to just tell people that the rate was 98%–especially if framed in reference to Germany.

“…tell people that more first-class mail arrives the next day in the UK than in Germany, because generally, in Britain, if you want to make us happy about something, just tell us we do it better than the Germans.”

In other example, he show the elevator buttons in the Lydmar hotel in Stockholm which allows you to choose your elevator music. He suggests that an expensive renovation of your hotel room won’t distinguish it enough from any other room in a high-end hotel in your eyes, but the novelty of those buttons will make a lasting impression for a fraction of the cost.

Amusing distractions won’t make up for the fact that your restroom facilities are too small to accommodate the your entire audience during intermission. However, if they are sufficient, the most effective response to complaints about the wait is likely to be less expensive than a renovation to enlarge the restrooms.  The primary concern for the audience member isn’t whether they will be able to use the restroom, it is whether they will be able to use the restroom and perhaps get a drink before intermission ends.

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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