NAMPC: Testing Ideas

11.16.12 | 4 Comments

CATEGORIES #nampc, arts administration, conferences, conversation starter, marketing, neverbedark

The astute reader can find the live tweets from last weekend’s National Arts Marketing Project Conference (#nampc, if you really want to read the several thousand tweets). There are many ideas and quotes that got tweeted, retweeted, modified, agreed with, and favorited. To my ear, however, there was one idea that became a throughline, that kept popping up in a different guise and almost every session, keynote, and discussion.

Charlie Miller: “The corporate world dedicates time and money to research and development, but arts businesses don’t.”

Richard Evans: “We must increase our adaptive capacities.”

Eric Ryan: “Don’t tell. Show. Make it tangible. Prototype.”

cdza: “Ride the noise. Be a part of the conversation.”

Tim Baker and Sara Billmann: “Experiment with offers. See what happens.”

Ron Evans: “Create benchmarks to measure against.”

Nina Simon: “We test and test and test our [participation] ideas before we launch them to the public. While not every one is a success, it certainly helps lower the failure rate on a larger scale.”

Over and over, this reiteration of testing ideas was mentioned. How often do we as a theater field apply this to our work? In the rehearsal studio, an actor and director may play around with character choices to find one that seems right. How often do non-commercial theaters test those choices in front of an audience, though? For the most part, once there’s an audience, the testing part is null and void. Commercial houses have preview audiences to work out the kinks of the shows, so that when they open, the producers are relatively assured of a consistent show that will bring consistent demand. But in nonprofit houses, this demand is not central to our productions. Sharing our art is. Why don’t we test with live audiences in order to share more? Dance with the audience the same way we dance with our fellow actors.

In Great by Choice: Why Some Companies Thrive in Uncertainty, even Chaos, and Others Do Not, author and researcher Jim Collins identifies several different critical features to long-term success, including what he calls “Empirical Creativity.” To define this, he uses the example of “first fire bullets, then cannonballs”; that is, do lots of LOW COST, LOW RISK, LOW DISTRACTION experiments to figure out what will actually work for your mission, then scale that one thing up quickly and achieve large success.*

How can our theaters prototype as organizations? Either with shows or show-related events (Sticky Events, to pull from Chad Bauman and Clayton Lord)? How can we apportion our valuable time and scarce financial resources to research new ideas and develop test subjects? Scaling up we can do, it’s figuring out what should be scaled that will be key to securing sustainability for our field.

Certainly one answer to this is the “never be dark” concept. If we use what is traditionally “down time”–between seasons, perhaps–as our R&D time, then these experimental projects can be done with little distraction, as they won’t take away resources from proven sales drivers. It would be low cost as folks are getting paid to be at work already, even with no earned income being generated, and as there is no show on from which to split away audiences’ money, there is little risk to the organization, as these test cases should still fall inside the organization’s mission.

There are bound to be an unlimited number of other methods to experiment in low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction ways, both with our art and with how we engage our audiences before and after a show. Two of the questions posed by cdza can help generate ideas to try: “What does it take to DO your art?” and “What do you LIKE about your art?”

On my way home from NAMPC, I went to a local chinese restaurant with a friend of mine who lives in Charlotte. My fortune cookie at the end had this on the slip of paper: “We have too many sounding words and too few actions that correspond with them.” I thought it was a perfect charge to end the weekend. Go. Test. Scale. Repeat.

*Of course, it is vitally important that success is defined by each organization according to its mission. One of nonprofit theater’s problems is the illusion that success must be defined as an either/or: either I fill seats OR I create art.

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  • kevinefclark

    Right on. The whole thing I turned up to talk about was this, too – how crowdfunding experiments helps you keep them small, keep them light, and make sure you learn a ton from a very engaged group of backers (and not have to find money for experiments in someone else’s budget).

  • Theatrix

    I think the concept is solid, Devra. Testing, research, development – all crucial to improve the output. The question is, HOW? Small orgs can barely afford to put shows on, much less add more time to the schedule with little or no pay for those involved, especially if there is no paying audience for this activity. Corporations and universities more tons of money into R&D because they can. If revenue is a problem to begin with, how can R&D even get off the ground?

    • Theatrix,
      It’s partnerships. You partner with the local college to have students test drive new plays in dark periods, or you partner with local small business to operate the R&D nights. And there are plenty of audience folks willing to pay to be on the bleeding edge even if is a little rough around the edges.

    • Theatrix,
      Sorry for my delay in response. And I hear you: it seems like an insurmountable issue of where to start. And thinking in terms of how corps/universities do it exacerbates the problem. I like to think of these experiments as small trials that can be fit in around other programming. For example: I have a high school theater group in my town that is always looking for space to perform. My theater is trying to figure out how to get younger audiences see our shows. A natural experiment would be to allow the high school group to use our stage for a weekend or two (no cost to us, other than lights and heat), capture their audience data, and then offer their friends a reason to come see our next production. No new programming on our end to pay for, win for the high school folks, and potential win for us if we have any conversion. R&D doesn’t have to be huge to be useful.