Insights For Innovation

Some discoveries about 70-year-old theatergoers from IDEO U.


This Spring, I participated in the inaugural public IDEO U course, “Insights For Innovation.” It was a wonderful experience — I’ve got lots of thoughts on the course itself, but that’s for another day — and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to expand his or her toolkit for developing insights, digging deeper, and solving problems, creative or otherwise.

But rather than go long on the course structure and material itself, I’d like to unpack some of the insights about the 70-year-old theatergoing public I gathered while working through the lessons.

How it works, briefly.

Through a series of exercises — Observation, Learning from Extremes, Interviews, and Empathy Immersion — I developed hundreds of individual data points about the experiences the 70-plus crowd has attending Broadway theatre from which to draw inspiration. Enlisting the help of my wife, every single piece of data was made tangible in the form of Post-its on the walls of our dining room (it’s a very creatively motivating place thanks to our gorgeous sonokeling wood table and rustic wall finish). It started looking a bit like this:

From there, we began to group the data into buckets, first a lot of them, then fewer, then different ones, eventually landing on five that seemed to frame most of the content appropriately: Social, Accessibility, Audience Behavior, The Show Itself and Tradition. Then through talking and thinking and finding evidence in the data we uncovered, crafted and refined a handful of insights about the experience that begin to suggest opportunities for future improvements in various areas.

Here’s where we landed (note: this is, of course, the beginning of a conversation — not meant as final, indisputable, “objective” fact).

Insight 1: While planning gets easier, more is required.

During the research phase, I was surprised to hear how much these older theatergoers loved the improvements brought about by technology: using computers gives them easy access to discounted tickets, lets them research and read feedback (professional and amateur) about the shows they’re considering, and makes choosing their seats really simple. This last point might be a minor whoa moment to anyone (like me) who’s never purchased tickets over the phone. Until online ordering became a habit, a few of the interviewees were religious users of a book called Stubs (The Official Theater Guide of Broadway Since 1947). For $12.95, they had access to seating charts for all the theaters, music halls and “stadia” (that spelling alone places it firmly in another millennium) in New York City. Now, they look back at the book like it’s an old friend who’s no longer part of their daily life.

Overall, they reported huge satisfaction with how easy the internet made the whole process of choosing and buying tickets to a show (and everything surrounding the experience: travel, restaurants, etc.). But they also made several comments that seemed to suggest something deeper was at play beyond simply increased convenience. Again and again, I heard things suggesting a lack of spontaneity taking hold over time: seat location becoming far more important as they tended to avoid stairs, sit closer (to balance out vision and hearing declines) and tend toward the aisles (so as not to be “in the way”). Additionally, their arrival at the theatre and all the surrounding events have become planned down to the minute to avoid any issues. They tend to feel as though they can’t just “get up and go” any more, whether it’s planning around “picky” friends, sticking to events close to their hotel (for those who come from out of town), or basic mobility changes over time. This tension between the increased ability to plan and the increased need for planning results in a strong reliance on the accessibility of technology to facilitate their continued attendance at these events.

Insight 2: Shared experiences demand new connections.

This is a weird, sticky, and wonderful one. Everyone knows (and laments daily, it seems) that the theatergoing experience is degrading over time. The complaints are legion: casual dress, too much talking, eating in the seats, the phones! We go to the theater to connect with other people, share in an experience (good or bad, sad or funny, serious or entertaining, high-art or low), and it’s getting harder and harder to do that — to connect — when “other people” just don’t know “how to follow the rules.”

The thing is, part of that desire to share is cross-generational: we want new people to see value in live performance, to continue to validate our belief in its cultural impact and importance. Therein lies the tension: we want people other than us (and those who are “like us”) to see theater, but when they do, the way they act makes them a nuisance, ruining the experience. So it would seem that both Hell and Heaven is other people when it comes to the theatergoing experience. What this suggests is that there’s an empathy deficiency between audience members that contradicts with the values they cite as central to the theatergoing experience. Ask anyone if they think the experience has gotten worse over their lifetime and you’ll get nods just as vigorous at the young end of the spectrum as the old. Put another way, the theater experience has never not been degrading from someone’s point of view. What if we called it “evolving” instead?

We’re all changing, every day: our priorities, expectations, behaviors, the trade-offs we’re willing to make. And yet we set a baseline for “theatergoing behavior” at some arbitrary point in our personal development (and even this is likely highly smoothed over by the fog of memory). For theatergoing to remain healthy and vibrant moving into the future, we need to find ways to help audiences connect with each other across generations, races, genders and socioeconomic status, and not by more strictly enforcing the same arbitrary rules that make the experience less accessible and less relevant to new audiences.

Insight 3: Tradition matters, but so do new highs.

Finally, we learned that theatergoing is, for many of these individuals, like a drug. Their first time was an unbelievable high, a transformative experience — “mind blowing,” even. And they continue to go back, chasing the heights of that initial exposure, despite never being able to quite reach the original thrill. The individuals I interviewed pointed to a decline in quality in the productions over time as the reason for these letdowns (too much of the same thing, nothing risky and new, too many shows based on movies, jukebox musicals, etc), but this was contradicted by their experience bringing friends or family to the theatre for the first time and seeing their reactions. That two people could experience the same show this differently suggests that blaming the quality of the content on lack of satisfaction is problematic. In any event, the goal of going back is clear: you never know when something life-altering will take place, so you’d better be there just in case.

While they might not be feeling the magic of the first time when they return to the theatre, many of these individuals get deep meaning out of developing a tradition of theatergoing, and in revisiting and passing on memories. Several of the interviewees keep detailed histories of their attendance, collecting Playbills, for example, from every single show they’ve attended — even, in one case, purchasing missing Playbills from her earliest attendance on eBay to complete her collection. They return to these (and old reviews in The New York Times) often — reading, researching, rehearsing and solidifying stories about their experiences (who was in it, what year it was, who else was there, what happened on stage, industry gossip from the time period, and especially any personal connections to the performers, if they existed) that they can pass down to anyone willing to receive them.

Producers would then seem to be between a rock and a hard place: audiences who value tradition, history, and memory, but equally crave new, thrilling, mind-blowing experiences. Is it possible to capture both in a single experience? Possible to build something so novel as to blow minds, and yet retain familiarity? Or is this a conundrum in the mind of the individuals, and if so, how might we help them develop new frames of mind? Perhaps these are even two competing jobs-to-be-done, requiring a different solution for each.


This research is just the beginning, of course. And these conclusions may be little more than the rambling of an admitted novice to this sort of qualitative research. But already, I’d argue there’s a great deal of food for thought, contradictions to “common wisdom” about this theatergoing demographic, and a wealth of potential challenges and opportunities for new solutions. And that, for me, is the true insight, the true power of the IDEO approach: who these people are, why they go to the theatre, what they need and want and care about — the answers are never quite what you think they are.

Ask, don’t assume.

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