Theatre really is best live

Audience heart rates show that there really is no substitute for being there.

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The Challenge

With the rise of Netflix, Youtube, and on-demand movie content, “we wanted to understand why performances are 'best live’” said Martine Parnell, Chief Marketing Officer at Encore tickets. As theatre goers know, there really is no substitute for being there in the audience. The challenge was to find a way to measure that experience and understand how and why watching performances live is different from watching them on a screen.

 “We wanted to understand why performances are 'best live’ ”, Martine Parnell, CMO, Encore Tickets

The Solution

Using biometric wristbands that can track physiological signals linked to the autonomic nervous system, which in turn relates to emotion and arousal, ACN researchers monitored audience response to a live Dreamgirls performance and found remarkable changes in their heart rates.

First, during the performance the audience’s hearts spent an average of 28 mins beating in elevated range between 50% to 70% of their maximum heart rate -- the zone is identified by the British Heart Foundation as the optimal for promoting cardiovascular fitness and stamina. So, although they were seated for the performance, audience members spent nearly half and hour engaged in healthy cardio exercise!

"You see comparable changes in heart rate in professional tennis players during bursts of highly intense exertion such as long and fast rallies"   Dr. Joe Devlin, ACN

Second, there their heart rates showed a wide range of highs and lows during the performance consistent with the fact that being in a live audience increases the emotional intensity of the experience.  By the end of the first act, heart rate nearly doubled from its resting state at the beginning while in the second act, it tripled! When the ACN researchers compared the live audience heart rates to a similar sized group who watched the Dreamgirls movie, the range for the live perfomance was far greater.

Audience heart rates while watching the Dreamgirls movie and the Dreamgirls live theatre performance (The Savoy, London)

Finally, the performance was so arousing, that the audiences' hearts not only beat faster and covered a wider range, they actually started to beat together in synchrony; the audiences' hearts were literally beating together. As psychologists are discovering, this sort of physiological coordination between people is a crucial aspect of human social life and bonding and has been reported before in other extraordinary situation like watching family members walk over coals and when romantic couples sit next to each other. Crucially, when the same sized sample of people watched the Dreamgirls movie instead of the live performance, their heart rates did not synchronise.


"Experiencing the live theater performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience" -- Dr. Joe Devlin, ACN

In smaller groups of people, heart rate coordination has been linked to team performance, trust, and empathy. In other words, the coordinated physiological response seen during the live performance may help to break down pre-existing social barriers and bring people together.

The Impact

With these results, Encore demonstrated that being part of a live audience really is a powerful and engaging experience and that performances really are 'best live'. The research was covered in the Standard, Daily Mail, The Stage, The Sun, iNews, London Theater, and the New York Times.

For additional information on consumer neuroscience, download our free Guide to Quality Neuromarketing.

Researchers Involved

Prof. Joseph Devlin
Prof. Daniel Richardson
Dr. John Hogan
Helen Nuttall

More from these Researchers

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