Dial Testing For Theatre Shows

Let’s tell the producers of a theatre show what we think of it in real time, shall we? If you don’t like the third song in the first act, then let them know straight away on your hand-held dial in the audience. What!?

Broadway producer Ken Davenport is doing just this with his new musical Somewhere in Time in its current out of town tryout in Portland, Oregon. The New York Times reported this week that those in the audience of Davenport’s show are being supplied with dials so they can report what they like or dislike in the performance as it happens. Meanwhile, Davenport himself is up the back of the stalls with his laptop looking at the results as they come in, while the show keeps running on stage.

Dial testing has been popular for decades for politics and movies, but now the theatre? This sort of thing is sure to create some controversy in the industry. Producers would argue with increasing Broadway costs (a $10 million budget is now considered dirt cheap) and recent figures showing only 25% of shows on Broadway are making a profit, dial testing is a way of getting closer to achieving what the audience wants before you hit the big stage.

But theatre is an art form, not a federal election. Messing with the art to ensure the dollars come in may sadly be a part of Broadway today. No one wants to make a loss or be known for putting a flop on Broadway. But the question of audience dial testing data influencing the final creative product is interesting, to say the least. Should we call this smart market research and no more harmful than a focus group seeing an early run of your show? Or is dial testing for the theatre compromising artistic integrity and placing money ahead of art?

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