Project Titus (Part 1): Measuring the Heart Rate of Audience Members at Shakespeare's Bloodiest Play

Project Titus (Part 1): Measuring the Heart Rate of Audience Members at Shakespeare’s Bloodiest Play

222250 Titus Andronicus - RSC production photos
RSC's Titus Andronicus. Left to Right: Sean Hart (Demetrius), Luke MacGregor (Chiron), Hannah Morrish (Lavinia) and Nia Gwynne (Tamora). Photo: Helen Maybanks
Becky Loftus

bBecky LoftusHead of Audience Insight at the Royal Shakespeare Company  

Date Published: 01 August 2017

What are your passions? Do you have more than one? Do they ever meet and you find yourself at a place where they intersect?

One day, as I met up with my fellow triathlete Dr Pippa Bailey, Director of Innovation at Ipsos MORI, our interests collided. We are both passionate about sport, about theatre and about research. By research, I mean market and social research techniques which we both use in our jobs to try to measure people’s responses and opinions, whether responding to theatre (in my case) or to political parties, breakfast cereals or a whole host of other things (Pippa).

The subject of wrist-based triathlon gadgets led us on to discussing how Ipsos MORI were now using heart rate monitoring in research projects. We’d also been talking about the emotional experience of being at the theatre and how similar or different that was at the cinema. Why was it that people clapped at the end, as though they were at the theatre, when the actors weren’t there to receive the applause?

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to measure people’s heart rates at both the theatre and the cinema to see if we could measure the difference? So much research on the theatre vs. cinema debate, was about whether people would stop going to the theatre and go to the cinema instead, to which the answer was broadly no. The RSC has surveyed people about the two experiences and whilst some  feel the theatre can’t be replicated and the cinema is second best, others feel that the cinema experience is like having the best seat in the house and feel like they are actually there. Combining Ipsos MORI’s expertise and resources with those of the RSC, we could explore this area using new techniques to see what we could both learn to inform our organisations’ objectives going forwards.

What better play to choose than Titus Andronicus? Notorious at the RSC because of a regular stream of fainters and people being sick causing havoc for the ever-tolerant Front of House team, it happened to be on in Stratford over the summer, with a live cinema screening on 9th August. Perfect! Was it being in the same room as such great acting that caused these visceral reactions or would people have the same reaction on a screen?

So, the project was born. Now for the small matter of making it happen.

We recruited two groups of 30, demographically matched based on age, theatre experience and gender to achieve a comparable set of results. One group would watch the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast of Titus Andronicus streamed live into a cinema on 9th August. The other group (split into 3 sets of 10) would watch the show in Stratford-upon-Avon at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre…

“Tell us how you are feeling in one word.” Pippa instructed.

“Nervous” came the first reply from our assembled audience.

Me too! Our heart rates were certainly racing and the show hadn’t even started.

We fitted everyone with a heart rate monitor on their wrists just above where a watch would go. They had been briefed to avoid coffee / caffeine and alcohol as these affect heart rate. Off they went to watch the show, along with our note taker, who was jotting down the precise times of key moments in the show (we also have a reference recording for each performance being researched).  

After the show, the participants came to the debrief room and we anxiously downloaded the data. All but one were full traces. One person’s monitor had somehow stopped just after the interval. Never work with animals or children…or technology! We have two other sessions running with 10 people at each, so hopefully we can make that up with an extra person, unlike the cinema where we will have all 30 people on one night.

Each person was then videoed talking about their experience before answering questions on the Ipsos MORI research app on a phone. Pippa had set in motion a whole raft of innovative research techniques to analyse this data including voice sentiment analysis and implicit research techniques.

The results won’t be available for some time as there is a lot for the data scientists to explore. At first glance, some people’s heart rates seemed to rise in anticipation of something happening rather than the event itself. Some elements (such as a sudden loud gunshot) might cause one type of reaction due to physiological changes as adrenaline floods the body, but others were more drawn out and linked with the strength of empathy with a character, such as the scene when Titus sees his brutalised daughter for the first time. It all comes down to the fight or flight reaction we have and there is a lot of that in Titus.

This is going to keep the data scientists busy.


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