You Can’t Do a Show for an Audience You Don’t Know

In one of my other classes, we have spent the past month or so developing the framework for a new work.  In my group, we are adapting the bestselling book The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  We have a designated director, costume designer, lighting designer, media designer, and two “managers” (members of the Arts Entrepreneurship and Management MFA program).  The very first week, we identified a target audience of families with children ages 7-12.  And then the director moved forward with his concept, the designers built the world of the show, the managers assembled the budget and tour schedule and a marketing plan all without thinking much about our audience ever again.

I was working on this project at the same time as I was “getting out of the building” for this entrepreneurship class, and I couldn’t help wishing I could take my group out for the same sort of research, talking to the people we think our product is for, testing our hypotheses.   We were building up this rich world of our story, without ever talking to the people that this story was for.  We didn’t talk to kids ages 7-12 to find out what they want to see on stage, we didn’t talk to their parents about what they think is important in educational entertainment.

As I was writing the marketing plan, I realized that I was just making a whole lot of untested guesses.  Guesses about who this was for, about what the people with the purchasing power want, about how to reach these people.  My entire marketing plan was one giant guess, based on my very first hypotheses.  I thought about our very first guesses about our arts venture, and how much we have pivoted our thinking in just two rounds of getting out of the building and talking to people.  Just this weekend, two of the hypotheses that I had absolute faith in were not only proven incorrect, but were unanimously proven incorrect.  In light of this entrepreneurship process, these guesses make me feel like this misguided marketing director:

If we had taken even five or ten minutes to really think about, and then talk about as a group, what our potential audience behaves in their daily life, how they think and feel, what they see and hear, what they say and do, we may have kept our audience as the driver of our artistic creation, rather than as an afterthought.  If we had taken this empathy map out, and tested our guesses by talking to kids, their parents, and their school administrators and teachers, we may have created a very different world for this story to live in, and I may have tried to bring this story to them in a very different way.

My goal is to be a successful artist…or, rather, make it possible for an arts organization or individual artists to be successful, and make a living doing it.  In order to be successful, I have to create (or ensure that the artists create) work that audiences really want.  I have to figure out what will bring new audiences to this art.  The best way to figure this out is not by making guesses sitting safely in my office, and testing those guesses once the product is complete and large quantities of time and money have been spent.  If our goal is to connect with a larger audience, then we must be testing our initial guesses by talking to people, talking to our current audience, and people we think are our potential audience, and then refining our guesses and talking to people again.  This idea of getting out of the building, of empathy mapping, should not just apply to creating a new venture, but trying something new (like an organization presenting a piece of work for the first time), or even just trying to expand a current audience.

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