Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thoughts on the "Richmond Cultural Census"

Posted by Bruce Miller
There’s an interesting discussion occurring on Dave Timberline’s blog, Richmond VA Theater.

Under A Must Read, posted Dec 9, and Some Reactions, posted Dec 10, Dave discusses the survey of Richmond arts patrons that was conducted earlier this year. A summary of the findings of this survey has been published by the independent consulting firm Wolf Brown as the Richmond Cultural Census. These findings are available online. (I stole that link by cutting and pasting from Dave’s blog. He knows how to do it.)

Within the summary, the following statement occurs:

“Attending live stage plays or musical theatre productions was cited as ‘a vital activity’ by less than 10% of all respondents and another 44% said that they ‘enjoy it occasionally’, a significantly lower proportion than expected based on previous cultural census studies in other cities.”

“The real story here, however, is the low percentage of respondents who cite going to stage plays and musicals as vital activities. In other areas, we have seen these figures as high as 20% to 25% 'vital activity.'"

I agree with everyone that this is a cause for concern, sorta. I also agree with those who suggest that the concerns should be leavened with a little perspective.

1. Wolf Brown states forthrightly that the survey is not a scientific instrument. No attempt was made to reach a statistically representative sample. Those who participated in the survey all self-selected. In other words, those who took the survey were either individuals who wanted to take the survey or individuals who were encouraged to take the survey. Please consider this statement which appears in the fine print of the Wolf Brown findings: “The reader is cautioned not to use the survey data to generalize about all residents of Greater Richmond.”

2. I’m aware that colleagues in other disciplines distributed the survey to hundreds of their supporters and urged them to indicate their sincere and vital support for and interest in the discipline they all loved. That was a smart and good thing for my colleagues to do. I failed to do the same. No one at Theatre IV and/or Barksdale emailed the survey to those who are passionate about theatre. To the best of my knowledge, no theatre leader in town blasted the survey off to the theatre community. My bad and our bad. Big time. Because of this failing, I honestly feel that theatre lovers are under-represented.

3. In every arts discipline except theatre, the survey questions defined the discipline in terms of mass media or low to no cost personal involvement. Please consider these examplies. When survey respondents were saying that the literary arts were of vital importance to them, the top category of participation was “read books, newspapers, magazines for fun.” Who among us would not agree with that? When survey respondents expressed vital interest in dance, the four top categories were “watch dance on TV,” “see praise dancing,” “social dancing,” and “make up your own steps.” Those who showed vital interest in music chose as their two top categories “listen to music on local radio” and “buy music for your own collection.” The top draw for the visual arts was “collect art for home.” The main attractions for history and heritage programs (museums etc) was “watch history programs on TV” and “read books or magazines about history.”

Only in the category of theatre was the art form defined more specifically. Respondents were not asked if they liked to “watch theatre on TV" or "see comedies and dramas at the movies.” The two top areas of “vital interest” in theatre were “attend musicals” and “attend stage plays.” In no other arts discipline did “attend a live performance of this discipline” make it to the top of the “vital interest” column.

4. When it comes to making ticket purchases as opposed to voting in a survey, theatre wins hands down. A study was conducted a couple years back to see if it made sense to establish a community-wide box office. Every major organization submitted data regarding the number of tickets sold to the general public through the various box office outlets during the previous year. Ticket sales to Barksdale, Theatre IV, Broadway Under the Stars, and theatre events at the Modlin Center represented nearly 70% of all tickets sold. In other words, theatre outsold all other performing arts disciplines--combined.

5. One can presume that a large percentage of those with a “vital interest” in theatre would subscribe to theatre. In the last six years, the Richmond theatre subscriber base has been kicked in the teeth TWICE. In 2002, subscribers to TheatreVirginia were left holding three tickets for TVA shows that would never take place. No refunds were offered. Three or four years later, subscribers to Broadway Under the Stars were left holding four tickets for BUTS shows that would never take place. Again, no refunds were offered. Had I been one of these subscribers, my “vital interest” in theatre would be considerably dampened.

6. Every study I’ve ever read—and I’ve read a lot of them—indicates that 2 to 3% of the American population cares passionately about the art form of theatre. In a comment posted on Dave’s blog, Rick St. Peter wisely quotes Jon Jory, the legendary artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, saying something like “no theatre that’s ever existed has attracted more than 2% of its potential audience.” The Wolf Brown survey says that 7% of all Richmond respondents say that “attending a musical” is “a vital activity for me,” and 6% say the same about “attending a play.” Truth be told, those figures are pretty impressive.

None of this is to say that theatre movers and shapers like each and every one of us should not take important lessons away from this survey. After a fairly careful study, here's some of what I consider to be the salient facts:

25% of all respondents said that they “haven’t but would like to try” “attending play readings.” Based on this and other observations, Barksdale will be establishing a play reading series next year.

19% of all respondents said that they “haven’t but would like to try” “taking classes.” Based on this and other observations, Barksdale will be attempting to fill this need in the near future.

24% of those people who have a history of buying few tickets to performance events indicate that they “haven’t but would like to try” “attending musicals” and “attending plays.” Through our new Entertainment Stimulus Package, Barksdale and Theatre IV have reduced prices on 10,000 tickets in the remainder of our 2008-09 Seasons to reach out to those who haven’t been attending due to higher ticket prices. We will also continue our existing $15 rush ticket policy.

All of us who care about theatre have much to learn. That’s one of the things I love about my job. There’s something new to learn every day.

And to those of you who do love the theatre--and don't worry, we know you're out there--please know that all of Richmond’s theatres wouldn’t be here without you. If you can and feel so inclined, please buy a ticket to a play today! And ask your friends to join you.

--Bruce Miller

1 comment:

Frank Creasy said...

Bruce, when you need actors to do those staged readings - you know how to reach me!

And good perspective on all this, Bruce. No surprise, par for the course from you, but I appreciate your viewpoints tremendously.