monica byrne

Data in theater.


This article came out in the Times this weekend. To quote:

“…I thought that what was happening to us was remarkable. The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgments of particular candidates, but it did not. It should also have caused us to moderate our predictions, but it did not. We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid. I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false. I was so struck by the analogy that I coined a term for our experience: the illusion of validity.”

They got me thinking about all the unsupported statements I hear thrown around the (non-Durham) theater community—the ones not addressed by Outrageous Fortune, such as, “nobody wants to see new plays,” and/or “new plays don’t make money.” This might be mostly true in the experience of the person who’s saying them. But, for example, in my experience?…my new play Nightwork was the most well-attended, financially successful show in Manbites Dog‘s 25-year history. I’m Assistant Artistic Director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, which does mostly new plays and sells out most of their shows. So it’s quite false in my own experience. What to do?

These are scientifically investigable assumptions. To paraphrase one of my creative heroes, Richard Feynman: Don’t believe anything anyone tells you. Prove it to yourself first. On the face of it, the assumption that Nobody Wants To See A New Play makes about as much sense to me as the assumption that nobody wants to see a new film, read a new book, or watch a new Red Sox game. So why do we keep repeating it, without having the data to underlie it; especially when it does so much harm to playwrights and the health of the American theater scene as a whole?

This study would be very easy to design. You pick a representative sample of theaters around the country, from indie groups to Broadway. You track their income for new plays versus “established” or “classic” plays. You control for variables such as advertising budgets (it won’t be perfect, but no study design ever is). At the same time, you track audience attendance and solicit audience feedback on both new plays and classic plays. You do this for 1-3 years. You analyze the data, draw conclusions, publish them, and suggest directions for future research.

And then we can make statements not because they’re clichés we repeat to each other, but because we have data to back them up.

So who’s going to do it?