I generally think that surveys measuring audience response are a bad idea. I care very deeply about what my audience thinks or feels, but I don't feel that surveys are the best way to assess this, and so don't use them. If the theater wants them, I consent, but I don't read them. This is not because I am a snob who is disinterested in what my audience thinks - on the contrary, I care very much - but because I think our contemporary culture has a weird fetish for quantifying everything, and something so delicate and ineffable as the relationship between artist and viewer can't even really be expressed verbally, let alone numerically. I am, in many cases, a believer in the wisdom of crowds and a fan of most open-source projects, but theater isn't computer programming or the collective hive-mind of Wikipedia. I find it much more instructive, actually, to watch an audience watch my work (as was easy to do at the Denver Center's in-the-round Space Theater in 2007), a technique recommended by the filmmaker Francois Truffaut, among others. Collectively, an audience is very intelligent, but not necessarily in a way that individual members can articulate - often I can better tell whether or not a play is working by observing body language. When are people laughing, crying, shifting, on the edge of their seats, dozing off, walking out? And who are they specifically, and when do I want or not want them to be doing each of these? This tells me much more than most of the feedback I get at "talk-backs," which is usually more about giving the audience a greater sense of involvement (a perfectly laudable goal in itself) than about soliciting "notes."-Playwright Jason Grote, blogging from the National Performing Arts Convention, where one session dares to ask: "Aside from the buzz in the lobby, is it possible to define - and even measure - how audiences are transformed?"
Why do I worry that what "transform" means here is less spiritual than "transformed into repeat happy customers!"
This is a really salient point about talkbacks, by the way. (And of course "surveys" only bring to mind "test screenings" and "Fatal Attraction"-like surgical rewrites.) As someone who has moderated quite a few talkbakcs in my time, I want to go out on a limb say that they more often than not, suck. First, I'm also struck by how often audience members take it upon themselves to indeed "give notes" to the playwright or artists--unsolicited--as if they're playwriting mentors themselves, or, worse, Broadway backers. (Imagine patrons telling Joanne Akalaitis that her staging of Heiner Muller's "Quartet" better get more accessible or else people may not like it! Well, that happened, I was there.)
Also, the outright rudeness of some of the "questions" I've hear never ceased to amaze me. To wit: "Were those Southern accents intended to be inconsistent?" "Did you mean the characters to be unbelieveable?"
Obviously, it's just a few "bad apples," if I may use the phrase, who take over and, if they're lucky, get a groupthink going in the crowd that skews the perceived "response" one way or the other. For instance, at one new play I moderated at the first questioner could still not get over the first line (two hours ago) said the word "bullshit", which then became the only topic of conversation for the next twenty minutes. I'm sure the playwright was helped by that.
The tragedy of talkbacks (and really I'm not overstating!) is that the insightful people either leave or stay around to watch the freakshow, while the rest of us are held hostage by the crankiest, most throwback savants who insist that nothing good has happened in the theatre since Death of a Salesman.
Yes, we need to take down that fourth wall and let artists and audiences engage more. But somehow the more formal and structured the setting (meant to protect the artists) ends up privileging the looniest and least fruitful comments--often by sheer luck of the draw. Instead, it often is much better to just keep the bar open after the show and let people congregate on their own (un-moderated and un-mediated) and invite some artists to mingle.