Catching feelings: Measurement of Theatre Audience Emotional Response Through Performance

Evans, Ronald (2022) Catching feelings: Measurement of Theatre Audience Emotional Response Through Performance. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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Attendance at live theatre is declining. Although emotional experiences are a primary motivator for people to attend theatre, many leave disappointed, never to return. Catching feelings, therefore, is core to successful theatre business models. Yet, there is a surprising lack of research investigating audiences’ emotional experiences while they are watching a play. This thesis explores the complex historical partnership between theatre and emotion, and suggests that measurement of physiological response using wearable biometric equipment is a viable tool for measuring audience emotional response during a performance.

Literature on measuring emotion in theatre is reviewed and categorized into four core areas. A framework for measuring physiological responses to theatre performances is proposed. A mixed-methods experiment measuring the physiological responses of nine audience members attending a production of Lauren Gunderson’s play "I and You" at London's Hampstead Theatre is analysed and the playwright is interviewed on her expectations of the audiences’ emotional response. The findings indicate that participant physiological arousal significantly increased at the surprise climax of the play as compared to two other sections of the play. Participants reported feeling, similarly, emotions of surprise and sadness. This suggests that audience emotional responses correlate to plot points with expected emotional response. Additionally, the use of measurement equipment is well tolerated during a performance. Based on this, a new model for rating the impact and capacity needs of emotional engagement activities is suggested, providing a novel tool for theatre companies to influence the behaviour of new and returning attendees, generate additional revenue, and connect audiences and theatrical experiences in enhanced, emotionally meaningful ways.

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