Participation experiments aim to build arts fan base

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The problem with some arts events is they treat audiences as if they don't exist at all.

That is the stance of the Heinz Endowments' "Arts Experience Initiative," which argues that audiences are desperate to have emotional and personal connections with the arts. Too often, they are instead told to be still and quiet, and the museum or theater or dance troupe they are watching will direct them how to react and feel.

To battle that, the initiative -- started in 2004 by the Heinz Endowments' Janet Sarbaugh and University of Pittsburgh theater professor Lynne Conner -- has helped 12 Pittsburgh-area cultural organizations experiment with ways to enhance audience participation and its impact on the arts.

Participation does not mean getting up and joining actors on stage. Rather, audiences often get to talk before and after performances, or get special information on the art. Examples include:

• Concert messaging at Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. A screen displayed information about music and the PSO between pieces, to reach out to the audience and disrupt the usual concert format.

• Changing signs at Andy Warhol Museum Brillo Boxes exhibit. Over eight weeks, officials went from using no interpretive signs to displaying proactive ones to investigate visitor experiences and interpretation.

• In the Dancer's Studio, Stagestruck and Beginning Ballet with Bob at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. These behind-the-scenes workshops let the audience inside the creative process.

• Girls Night Out at City Theatre. Friday night group specials with drink discounts and massages show that arts events with friends can be fun.

• Point of View Writing Workshops at Silver Eye Center for Photography. Participants write short stories related to photography to foster opinion sharing and interaction with art.

• Circle discussions at Quantum Theatre. Board members invite subscribers and single-ticket buyers into their homes, forcing board members and other theater officials to listen closely to audience opinions.

• European intermission and Cupcake Questions at Dance Alloy Theatre. During a half-hour intermission the audience gets free cupcakes with questions tucked inside, provoking thought and discussion in fun ways.

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