User Experience and the Theatre

What do you remember from your last experience at the theatre? an opera? a dance piece? Have a think about it. Jot down five things that come to mind. I can categorically say that for the majority of you all five of those points would have something to do with the performance itself.

Shift focus to food. Think of the last time you had a great experience eating out. List five things that you really enjoyed about the overall experience. I’m fairly confident that at least one of those points would have been about the environment, whether it be the wait staff, the setting, the company, the menu, even the music that was playing, and not about what is at the heart of the experience; the food.

Now to web design. In the last few years, user experience designers (UX designers, interaction designers etc.) have become hot property for any project that isn’t only consumer focussed, but people focussed. What people are recognising the need for is managing the user experience from the first moment they touch on your property, to the moment they ‘convert’, to the moment they leave your site.

UX for the arts

For any arts organisation, your audience are your users. They are the reason you exist as a company. As Viola Spolin put it in ‘Improvisation for the Theater’,

The audience is the most revered member of the theater. Without an audience there is no theater. Every technique learned by the actor, every curtain, every flat on the stage, every careful analysis by the director, every coordinated scene, is for the enjoyment of the audience. They are our guests, our evaluators, and the last spoke in the wheel which can then begin to roll. They make the performance meaningful.

In addition, from a business point of view, they are the theatre’s financial lifeblood. Therefore, why shouldn’t their experience be thought of from the beginning to the end?

Peter Gregson recently touched on this point at TEDx York, paying particular attention to the way restaurants manage their diner’s experience, from the waiting staff to the food to the door handles, and suggested that arts organisations need to think about this a little more.

What this would require is someone to sit down and consider the full journey that an audience member takes through their experience of an individual show, auditing the entire process, from purchasing a ticket, to arriving at the theatre, to taking your seat, to leaving and reflecting on the experience. From here, we move on to identifying weaknesses and strengths, developing user scenarios (or stories) and developing fictional personas to represent your audience. From this theatres and producers can make sure their audience’s experience is as strong and positive as possible.

But what if you want to take the user experience to the next level?

UX taken to the extreme

Secret Cinema has been running for 6 years. They aim to provide a completely immersive cinema experience, replete with actors and large sets, played out in tune to the film of the night. The audience are required to dress in the style of the film (without knowing what the film is) and are contacted at regular intervals before the shows with clues, instructions and stories, all in line with the film. When you arrive at the nearest tube station, actors are ready to transport you into the world of the film, from a short bus journey to a warehouse recreation of a futuristic china town for Blade Runner, to an organised protest in an underground recreation of 1940s Covent Garden for Red Shoes, both replete with bars, shops and recreated scenes from the films.

What Secret Cinema achieves is a completely immersive experience, where the audience is catered for from the beginning to the end. In fact, the experience for the audience is so well crafted, it quite often takes centre stage, with the film coming in a slight second. However, what Secret Cinema has achieved through creating these experiences is an event that consistently sells out, has huge amounts of buzz around it online (the Facebook page has over 103,100 fans at the time of writing) and has an amazing word of mouth response.

Where to next?

Arts organisations might not need to go to the extremes that Secret Cinema do, but addressing the basic areas around box office services (both online and offline), the theatre itself (including the foyer, refreshments and ushers) and the follow-up experience with audiences can improve the audience experience within a theatre dramatically. If a theatre company doesn’t have control over these things, as they are only hiring the space, all it may take is simply talking to the venue. After all, the audience are customers for both the venue and the theatre company.

Want to read more about UX? The majority of books, sites and articles are centred around web design. However, most of these are easily transferable to any area. I’d suggest having a look at Cennydd Bowles and James Box’s ‘Undercover User Experience Design’. Two great online resources are UX Mag and UX Booth, and David Sherwan did a great article on explaining UX research on A List Apart a few years ago.