Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Resource #3: Engaging Art

Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America's Cultural Life has been one of the most exciting reading discoveries of the summer for me. Edited by Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey (former head of the NEA and author of the recently published Arts, Inc.), the book is filled with essays that make you think about theatre and the development of theatre audiences in new and exciting ways. My plan is to devote some attention to individual chapters rather than do a single review -- stretch out the meal, as it were. Today, I'll be examining "Can There Ever Be Too Many Flowers Blooming?," by Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, which was published in 2004.

Schwartz talks about studies that have been done that compares how people's behavior changes according to the number of choices they have. The first he refers to was done by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper "in which shoppers at a gourmet store were confronted with a display that offered samples of a high-quality, imported jam. On one day six flavors were on display and on another day twenty-four. Shoppers who stopped by the display and tried the jam were given a coupon that saved them a dollar on any jam they bought. Iyenger and Lepper found that the large display attracted more customers than the small display. But when the time came to buy, shoppers who had seen the large display were ten times less likely to buy as the shoppers who had seen the small display." (italics mine)

Additional studies sounded the same theme. "Students given a large number of topics from which to choose were less likely to write an extra-credit essay than those given a small number of choices." "When owners of convenience stores were convinced to reduce the variety of soft drinks and snacks they had available, sales volume increased, as did customer satisfaction." "Young adults made more matches in an evening of speed dating when they met eight potential partners than when they met twenty." "When employees are offered a variety of different funds in which to put voluntary 401(k) retirement contributions, the more funds that are available, the less likely they are to invest in any at all."

For those who have been following my campaign to convince more people to stop flooding into the metropolitan areas and instead create theatres in places that have been artistically underserved, Schwartz's essay should prove heartening. Instead of adding to what Schwartz calls "choice overload" in, Say, New York City with its 1700 off-off-Broadway productions each year, you can instead take advantage of the tendency of people to buy more when they have fewer choices. In response to those who argue that there just isn't a sufficient audience in smaller places to support a theatre, you can point to the jam shopper's multiple of ten as an argument.  Don Hall has expressed concern that I paint too rosy of a picture, and that it isn't as easy as I make it out. Frankly, I don't think selling theatre in any place, no matter the size, is easy. Neither do I feel it is as hopeless as some would make out who argue that you need a city of a million people in order to supply the handful necessary to keep a theatre going. To some extent, Schwartz bears my guarded optimism out.

However, Schwartz wonders aloud whether culture is different, noting that unlike jam there is not a one-to-one relationship between products that prevents you from buying both (I'm not certain why you can't buy both jars of jam, too, but oh well). As he notes, we all have limited time and resources available for cultural activities, and that is true no matter where you live.  INevertheless, he notes that "doing culture may stimulate demand for more culture." This is the theory, outlined in another essay in this book, that is referred to as "do more do more," i.e., those who do more tend to do even more; those who are part of a service club, for instance, are more likely to also attend a performance because they are the type who do stuff. No matter where you are, finding those people who lean towards the arts already is a good way to find your own audience.

One of the things that is lost when the number of choices is narrowed is diversity, not because an art must appeal to the mainstream, but rather just because, well, there's only one choice. This would be something to keep in mind when creating your program options: how can you commit to diverse offerings and resist the temptation to "narrow cast."

In the end, Schwarts provides something for everybody, no matter where you live and what you do, to feel good about and to worry about. Which to my mind is pretty exciting!
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1 comment:

Laura said...

Several years ago, I went through my DVD collection and gave away or sold about half of it because it kept me from ever being able to figure out what to watch. I have since married into a movie collection that numbers in the hundreds. Now when I want to watch a movie, I open the cabinet, look around for a while, and 9 times out of 10 end up getting overwhelmed and deciding to go do something else. All those movies at my disposal, and I almost never watch anything.

When I lived in a big theatre city, I chose what to see simply by whether I had a friend involved - that was usually all I had time for because so many friends were doing so many different shows. Now that my choice is simply: "There is a theatre performance tonight. Do I go, yes or no?" I'm more likely to take a chance on something I know absolutely nothing about. We had a very interesting night watching a staged reading of a Rod Serling TV screenplay at Ithaca College one night on a whim. I wonder, however, if the same thing applies to people who don't move in theatre circles, who don't automatically look for theatre everywhere they go. What does it take for a night at the to theatre even occur to them as something to do in either locale?