Dialing it up

An interesting article in the New York Time’s the other day that raises some questions about the relationship between commercial success and authorial intent. Ken Davenport is apparently equipping his audience for “Somewhere in Time” with dials to indicate their enjoyment or lack thereof throughout the course of the show. As the show progresses, they can turn their dial to render their opinions moment by moment. Read the article here.

This is apparently a method of test marketing that has been employed by politicians, advertising campaigns, and feature films.

Now this is tricky. The artistic purist in me is all indignation. But isn’t the audience an integral part of the theatrical experience? Without them, it would be just a piece of literature. And the “development” process—readings, out of town tryouts, etc—has sought to incorporate them into the creation of the piece. Which is worthwhile. Why not incorporate this kind of technology to gauge audience reaction and hopefully make the musical that you have sunk buckets of cash into a commercial success? And after all, you could always choose to disgregard the dials couldn’t you?

But again this is demonstrating fiercely utilitarian streak when it comes to arts. (It could of course be argued that this musical is a commodity or an entertainment, not an art and that there is room for both on the theatrical landscape). It is bothersome how little emphasis is placed on the vision of the book or music writer, or the cohesion of the message/storytelling of the piece. And I can imagine that the result of this testing would lean towards a theater that is simply reinforcing prevailing attitudes and ideologies and doing little to challenge or question those. The dials make it about pleasing the audience- not about situating them in any more challenging or thoughtful position.

As long as theatrical productions are so prohibitively expensive, as long as profiting from them remains so difficult and yet so crucial, as long as Broadway remains unclear whether it is an artistic and or a fundamentally commercial endeavor, ideas like this will probably always seem appealing to someone.

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