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According to the Inquirer, audience marketing research will be among the less whimsical functions of the $450,000 interactive "Time Machine," a tunnel-shaped exhibit dominating the Kimmel Center's lobby for the 2013 Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. (Click here.) Last year the Festival functioned in its own "way-back" machine: Mere humans counted heads with hand clickers. This year, interactive kiosks inside the Time Machine will gather personal information from visitors electronically.
Selling shoes, and seats
Truth to tell, this Big Brother spectacle is the least of a Festival visitor's concerns. Data mining is practically taken for granted as the price of admission into our brave new world. In nosing around your contact information, the Time Machine is just doing what every 21st-Century business is doing. It just feels creepier when you're immersed in such a blatant science-fiction fantasy.
I expect this from Zappos.com (the online shoe Mecca that subjects me to weeks of sidebar ads if I so much as think about buying a new pair of shoes). But from a sophisticated world-class performing arts center?
I love Philadelphia's cultural scene and I appreciate the marketing professionals who help it survive. Last week I attended an outstanding production of Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them by Theater Confetti, one of Philadelphia's many small, self-produced theater groups. When the lights went up after the curtain call, I discovered that only half the seats in the audience were taken. I couldn't help wondering: How can smaller companies compete without a half-million-dollar time/marketing machine of their own?
How to help
To be sure, the Festival does indeed provide a showcase for performing artists from many of Philadelphia's small and mid-size theater companies. And the Time Machine is a clever contraption. And I'd rather show my "data points" to a local cultural institution than some distant faceless virtual online shoe distributor. Still, is it too much to hope that, as audience research becomes more sophisticated, small theater companies will develop the means and the savvy to use these tools, too?
How can theatergoers help? Here's my suggestion:
If you plan on sharing a bit about yourself with the good folks at the Kimmel, why not also take the time to reach out to one or two of your favorite self-produced theater companies? Visit their websites. Make sure you're on their e-mail lists. Better still, invite a non-theater-going friend to one of their shows.
Even in the 21st Century, it takes a village to support a healthy arts community— with or without a Time Machine.
What, When, Where
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