Evaluating experiments in challenging times
The Donmar Warehouse 2019/20 season was all about Important Stories, Thrillingly Told. When the pandemic caused theatres to close, the Donmar experimented with new ways to continue telling these stories. They used their creativity to embrace the restrictions rather than compromise their vision.
They started with Midnight Your Time – a new digital production created during lockdown; and followed it with Blindness– a socially-distanced, in-person sound installation.
MHM partnered with the Donmar to evaluate these experiments from the audiences’ perspective. Both budget and time were limited, so we needed to implement a fast, simple way to capture what the audience thought. A smart online survey offered both consistency and flexibility so that the Donmar could reflect, learn and develop in a time of uncertainty.
The findings have given the Donmar essential insight for future programme planning and valuable evidence to support potential funding bids. In particular we learned:
1. The Donmar brand transcends its performance space
Through previous research, we knew audiences strongly associated the Donmar with quality and intimacy. The question was whether they could successfully deliver both in an online setting.
The evaluation found the Donmar team not only created the same high-quality production to new formats but also gave audiences a satisfyingly intimate theatrical experience: a phenomenal achievement.
The performance felt incredibly intimate. Watching on my laptop, the sense of being the recipient of the messages was terribly moving.
2. Experimentation built brand loyalty
Both productions brought in new audiences. People who had never engaged before found their way to the Donmar via the new formats. But, crucially, the act of experimenting itself built even more brand loyalty.
The strong association of quality meant engaged audiences were willing to take a risk, to follow the Donmar to new places and they gave the theatre credit for leading them on the journey. They recognised and appreciated the Donmar’s creativity and innovation in a difficult time.
Yet another very high quality production from the amazing Donmar team and a perfect solution to the current difficulties in staging work for a live audience.
3. The ‘live’ experience doesn’t need to have live actors
Digital theatre experiences have quickly become commonplace since March but even with the highest quality, made-for-online productions, like Midnight Your Time, audiences agree that it doesn’t replace a live performance.
For Blindness, the audience attended in person, were seated far apart and then listened to the pre-recorded play through earphones. No actors were in the room. The Donmar successfully created a unique, intimate, ‘in-person’ experience all within strict social distancing rules.
4. Audiences need more advance information to fully appreciate new formats
Both productions exceeded audience’s expectations, with the only criticism being not knowing enough about the production in advance.
For Midnight Your Time, there wasn’t enough information about the format – how long the performance would last, when it was available and so on. For Blindness it was more about content, the timely pandemic narrative proved challenging for some and they would have appreciated more explicit warnings.
This might seem surprising: the Donmar’s largest Culture Segment is Essence, who normally eschew too much information. But our research showed the performing arts can’t assume their regular audience’s information needs will be the same for pandemic performances.
In effect, Essence wanted more information from the Donmar so they could feel as ‘expert’ in pandemic plays as they are with usual theatre productions.
Blindness was such a success that it has now been presented in Amsterdam, and next will be heading to the US, one of the first in-person performing arts events in New York since the sector closed in March 2020. And the Donmar is still experimenting with Important Stories, Thrillingly Told.
Photos by Helen Maybanks