Propping up the audience experience

A growing trend among performing arts organizations, especially the symphonies and operas among us, is to offer some tips for new audiences on what they should expect from their first visit.

Ranging from guidance on dress code, to pointers about how to act when you first visit, the lists attempt to create comfortable environments and inspire repeat attendance. 

To be clear, I have nothing against these kinds of lists and pointers, and even shared one that I found helpful last December, when I was taking my three-year-old to his first live theater production. But I know I’m not alone in thinking that even the best lists won’t go far enough to make lasting headway toward creating more inclusive environments. 

So what can you do—in print and in person—to attract new audiences, engage them, and retain them?  Here’s a round-up of some good, practical thinking from the field: 

Learn from the best

If you’re going to use one of those “what you should know before you visit” lists, make sure it’s top-notch.

Last fall arts blogger Joe Patti praised an article he had seen on Vox, “Everyone can be an opera buff. Here are 7 steps to get started” for digging a little deeper into contextualizing the visitor experience, which is critical to enjoyment.

What makes the Vox version stand out in a crowd? They shared context in such a way that the work became more approachable without assuming that the audience didn’t get it.

Put the customer experience first.

Note that I didn’t say “audience” there—I really do mean customer. Why? Because sometimes whether someone decides to come, or return, to your organization has more to do with the experience they had as customers (buying the tickets, interacting with your staff) than it did the artistic content.

There's more on that in our recent SoulCycle piece, or, if you’re looking for hard numbers, and some grim realities, check out visitor services guru Colleen Dillen’s recent piece on how museums are faring in the customer service department.  

Ask, and answer, the tough questions. 

ICYMI, Ceci Dadisman of ArtsHacker recently posed a set of tough questions that we all should explore. Among them:

  • "How would a new person perceive the lobby experience at my theater? Would they feel welcome? Would they know what to do?” 
  • And a fave from the Creating Connection lens—“Are we just telling people about the show or are we making a compelling case as to WHY they should come to the show?"