A couple of weeks ago we received an email from the RSC entitled ‘RSC audience research’. The stated purpose of this research is ‘to ensure the RSC are providing the best service possible’. We weren’t aware that theatre was now part of the service industry, but always eager to help, we decided to take the survey, which we were assured would take no longer than 20 minutes to complete ‘depending on our responses’. The mind boggles. Perhaps this is the future of theatre criticism. Instead of a quote from a critic, posters will tell you that ‘eight out of ten audience members we surveyed were very satisfied or satisfied with their theatre-going experience’.
Well, we’ve reviewed the play (it was ‘Little Eagles’), so we thought it only fair to review the survey.
Accuracy. What percentage of responses are they likely to get from an email survey? The Ipsos Mori website claims to be able to construct email surveys that people will want to respond to, but we’re sceptical. For a start, there were quite a few questions that they didn’t need to ask at all. The theatre must know when we went, what seats we had and how far in advance we booked. If they can’t be bothered to retrieve this information, why should we? And why did they bother asking the respondent the question ‘Were you involved in making the decision to come and see this production?’ (and interestingly there is no option for ‘No, but I did book the tickets’) and then proceed to allow only one set of answers. Many people go to the theatre in pairs and groups, so even if they get as far as eliciting a response, they have already reduced the number of different opinions about the play. Presumably they do expect people to have differing opinions
Getting feedback on the play. Whoever devised this survey must have had great fun choosing the single words with which we are invited to sum up the play. They include Different (from a good play?), Clever (what if it’s a stupid play about clever people), Challenging (we weren’t challenged, does that mean we’re really clever), Funny (do we get marks deducted for laughing in the wrong place), Irritating (we quite liked that one), and Uplifting (well they did put a man in space). Strangely absent is the one word that might describe any good play ‘Dramatic’. We are also asked to rate each aspect of the experience, from storyline to props, to quality of acting, to lighting. It’s almost as though they are working out who to give a pay rise to and who to sack. Interestingly there is no way of rating how important these aspects are to us. And no recognition that if some aspects of the play are done well, you won’t notice. That’s the joy of being a lighting designer. It’s a shame they didn’t ask about the non-traditional casting – an issue which might actually provoke some interesting debate, especially if broken down by ethnicity. We are also asked to rate the poster for the play (which we liked), without asking why we thought it was good or bad. So unless they are planning on a whole series of Russian space-themed plays we are not sure what they will glean from our answer.
Making us feel like market research stooges. Of course we don’t mind saying if we’ve been to the theatre before, or whether we would go back to see the RSC again, although there are very few companies that we would consider exceptional enough to rely on brand alone. We understand that the RSC will probably want to know if they are reaching new audiences, as they say ‘the RSC is committed to welcoming everyone to see live theatre’. But why do you need to know how much we earn, what qualifications we have, what job we do, how many people we are in charge of, and what papers we read? The fact that these types of questions are all too familiar from filling out consumer surveys doesn’t help.
What on earth will the RSC do with this information, we wonder? It won’t be complete enough to make any assumptions about audience make-up, and even if it was, what would they do if, for example, they found that none of the women liked the play, or all of the men found it irritating? Will they tell the author to make it a bit more female-friendly next time? Or less annoying?
Well, unfortunately, rather than leave that as a rhetorical question, we tried to find out. And we discovered that eight years ago the RSC began a five year project with some help from management consultants Accenture, focussing on ‘customer relationship management’. A report entitled ‘As They Like It’ explains that using audience segmentation and analysis has helped the RSC to market itself better and find new audiences, although the report can’t quite decide what the most important thing is. One minute, audiences are ‘helping to shape the RSC’s artistic direction’, the next, they are using customer relationship management to ‘develop and change the audience in ways that meet our evolving business needs’. The conclusion reads ‘Shakespeare, whose success as a playwright made him a substantial personal fortune*, would surely have approved’.
Or he might have said ‘S’blood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?’**
* For an alternative view as to how Shakespeare made his fortune click here
**Hamlet, Act III scene 2