by Brendan Kiley

Market Research Theatre

Annex Theatre at Union Garage

June 27-28.

When it comes to audiences, or lack thereof, many artists suffer from hypocritical delusion. They mock "mainstream" entertainment, congratulate themselves on how interesting their art is, then carp and moan about how few people come to see their work.

Professional market researcher and devoted theater-maker Matt Fontaine has cut to the marrow of this contradiction with Market Research Theatre, his stage experiment about the intersection of art and public opinion.

Part of Annex Theatre's new Oyster Series, MRT applies surveys, focus groups, and other research techniques of the business world to the process of generating plays. "I wanted to point out that no one really seems to know what non-theater people think about theater," said Fontaine. "And no one seems to care."

The experiment questions the assumption of artist-as-little-black-box-from-which- genius-emanates and poses an uncomfortable question for the self-described artistic fringe: Why do you make art--and who, exactly, are you doing it for?

"Aesthetically, I hate this idea," said MRT actor Gretchen Douma. "But I'm also fascinated by it. On a pragmatic level, it puts right on the table what has always been bubbling under the surface."

Fontaine and his crew started the experiment at Westlake Center, asking random passersby questions about what genres, characters, themes, and styles they do and don't like to see in theater. Perhaps surprisingly, even people who hadn't seen a show in 10 years had definite ideas about what does and doesn't work on stage. "Fringe people think there's this whole other group of Americans that don't think about theater," said Tim Sanders, one of three playwrights participating in MRT. "That's just not true--when the surveys came back, everyone had strong opinions."

Based on the survey data, three playwrights were each given a set of criteria--most appealing, second-most appealing, and least appealing--and ordered to write a play based on those criteria. Sanders got "least appealing," and wrote a piece triangulating what the sample audience said they didn't want to see--a politically or technologically themed experimental Western that included an infant, inanimate objects, and homosexual scenes. "And it couldn't be funny," he said. "It was a challenge--how do you write an experimental Western that isn't funny?"

MRT staged a focus-group reading of the initial drafts and two weekends of "data-gathering performances" before heavily surveyed audiences--all of which will culminate this weekend, with final-results performances June 27 and 28. For anyone who cares what the derided masses think about the arts, the resulting performances should be fascinating. Will the plays, after such self-conscious attempts to please their audiences, succeed in doing so? Will the "most appealing" play actually be the best?

While Fontaine hasn't yet formally analyzed his data, MRT's work has turned up some interesting anecdotal findings. Surveyed audiences, for example, tend to strongly agree with the statement, "I like an unconventional story if it makes me think." When presented with unconventional stories, however--like the experimental Western--they respond poorly. "People like to believe they like to think, but they don't actually want to think," Fontaine said. "They have high expectations for theater--they expect it to be both entertaining and lofty."

Despite the cold logic of MRT's methods, Fontaine (who calls himself "an Artaudian at heart") hopes the project won't simply be a one-off experiment in rational-choice playmaking. It could, in fact, have broader applications in the development of new work. Most post-reading and -performance "talkbacks" are utterly useless. Between chickenshit friends of the artists who don't want to offend and nitpicking audience members who like to hear the sound of their own voices, little of use gets communicated. "But if someone has a survey, they don't have to tell you who they are," Fontaine said. "The focus groups we did, for example, gave us opinions that were incredibly honest and useful"--something one rarely finds in for-the-record discussion about local theater.

While MRT raises interesting questions about artists and their audiences, it isn't a novel idea, and artists may have a point in defending their media as sacred, idiosyncratic ground. As Annex artistic director Bret Fetzer pointed out, most products in the world, including movies and Broadway musicals, are focus-grouped--sometimes to the point of total blandness.

"This is one of the few areas where there is a huge amount of creative freedom," said Fetzer. "As long as the rest of the world is driven by market-research approaches, we might as well let fringe theater be a safe haven."

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