Though the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood commercials often confuse us, the live performing arts are a retail business, in many ways just like shops that sell sewing machines, soap, or CDs, or like neighborhood bars—and like all retail businesses, our customers adjust, change, and move and our businesses need to adjust with them.

We called up a bunch of theaters around the state, from Anoka to Minneapolis’s West Bank to ask them to tell us who is coming through their doors.

But first: The National Endowment for the Arts just released a study that found four million fewer people went to nonmusical drama across the country since 1990. So what? Four million less people may be buying soap too but as long as the people in your neighborhood like to stay clean, your soap store is fine. And, anyway, you should be realistic about how many bars of soap you need to sell in the first place. Note to self: Metaphor officially dead.

Don’t get me wrong: Statistics are awesome. (135%) They’re round and soft yet definite and firm. They really don’t require reading—which more and more people openly despise. (75%) You can just skim them so easily because they set themselves off from actual words so distinctly. (Note how cute and useless they are in these parenthesis—25.27%) I really want to pet them. They make me think I know something. But like that boyfriend or girlfriend you dated in high school just because he or she was hot, statistics’ insistent, arrogant lack of substance becomes tiresome over time.

Remember: Statistics are only useful when part of a large sample set. And performing art, at its best, is always a small sample set. Workhouse Theater on the north side is doing quite nicely right now, and they barely hit a thousand patrons all last season. Presidential polls with a 3 percent margin of error call a thousand people in one night. In other words, Workhouse doesn’t have an even nominally useful statistical sample until they’ve produced three different shows, and the differences between the shows mean that their survey numbers should be aggregated only with extreme caution.

Imagine: Your show last night sold a hundred tickets and twenty of those ticket buyers filled out a survey. Of those twenty responses, five appear to fit the profile of Nancy. Before you start stalking her and her cohort, note that (1) You don’t have enough responses to accurately conclude that 25 percent of your audience is Nancy. (2) Even if 25 percent of your audience is Nancy, you don’t have enough information to know whether a different demographic in the other 75 percent would be a better or easier group to target. (3) You don’t know whether Nancy actually liked your work. (4) Let’s face it—only certain types of people fill out surveys. Maybe, just maybe, Nancy is our ideal theater audience because Nancy is the ideal audience for surveys.

Once we started asking around, we were surprised by how often the myths about the performing arts don’t hold true in specific theaters:

Myth #1: Only rich people go to theater. Audience data from the Minnesota Fringe Festival, the Jungle Theater, and Mixed Blood Theater indicate that the people who visit these theaters are fairly evenly spread out across all economic strata. While the upper class does enjoy theater at a rate higher than their representation in the wider population, any given evening in these theaters will be enjoyed with an equal (if not greater) portion of people with household incomes between $0–40,000 or $40,000–100,000. For example, at Mixed Blood’s production of Love Person, 25 percent of the audience earned less than $40,000 per year and only 25 percent earned more than $100,000. According to the Fringe’s 2008 annual report, only about one quarter of the audience had an annual household income over $100,000 while nearly 4 in 10 patrons made less than $50,000 a year. In fact, the single largest annual household income category was $25,000–49,999. At the Jungle Theater, a third of the audience had an annual household income of less than $60,000 and another third $60,000–100,000.

Myth #2: Only old people go to theater. According artistic director John Bueche, Bedlam Theatre has mostly attracted an audience of 18–25-year-old artists and university students. Since moving in to their new space, he says, they’ve seen an increase in “traditional theater goers” but that may simply be because the young kids who first found them many years ago have gotten older. Plus, Bedlam itself has grown ten times bigger in all directions in the last three years. Still, every show sees its share of young, new faces in the crowd. Of course, your theater may be different than Bedlam. (Though 41 percent of the audience for Love Person were under the age of 44 and 63 percent of the audience under 54.) The point is only that each theater, like any retail store, is attracting a decidedly different audience depending on the product they sell and how they sell it.

Myth #3: Only urban, urbane people go to theater. Mirium Must of Red Eye Theater says that they’ve targeted their marketing to the urban core, both in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Considering the edgier work that they do and their location on 14th Street off Nicollet, this makes an awful lot of sense. Since they’ve been accepting online reservations, however, they’ve noticed a surprising increase in the amount of suburban addresses they’ve recorded from customers. Perhaps the internet increases accessibility and advertising to a wider geographic area or, perhaps, online ticketing requires that someone besides city-dwelling, survey-monkey Nancy leaves contact information. Either way, Must notes, “perhaps our assumptions aren’t accurate.”

Myth #4: No one really goes to theater anymore anyway. Conversations with both Bloomington Civic Theatre and Lyric Arts in Anoka reveal that their shows run at 80–90 percent capacity on a regular basis. They’re filling up their houses—as are many other community theaters around the state. Hurrah! Sure, they do lots of musicals. And, yes, Bloomington executive director Terry Lynn Carlson admits, their audiences’ average age hovers between 60–75 years old. (Lyric Arts describes their audience as “family-oriented.”) The point here is that people do and will come to certain theaters in certain places for certain reasons, no matter what the NEA’s aggregate data says and The New York Times reports in its very serious, morbid gray way.

Additional information: At the Southern, data varies wildly depending on the show. The ethnic makeup of the audience is different depending on whether the dance company is Ragamala Music & Dance Theater or Zenon Dance Company or Ananya Dance Theatre—no surprise. And while the Southern (like everywhere else) brings in more women than men at their productions—a split of approximately 60/40 women to men—marketing director Kate Nordstrom notes that Jon Ferguson’s shows, for example, see a much more even distribution of men and women—go figure. Beyond Ballroom brings in an older crowd, but other dance shows have a lot more audience members in their mid to late 30s. Aggregating these numbers simply because every show fits the broad category of live entertainment might make marketing consultant poobahs happy while providing only hazy, useless information to their clients.

And while Theatre LatteDa hasn’t done a comprehensive audience evaluation since they left their permanent space in Loring Park, they have without question forged an unexpectedly vibrant new audience. Last year, their production of All is Calm was broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio to an audience of over 650,000 people; this year, the show tours from New England to California.

Certainly, you shouldn’t disregard statistical, demographic information. As Sara Stevenson Scrimshaw writes, data can be fun. And as Joseph says, you should think clearly about who will be attracted to your work and who won’t. The point is, however, that large aggregate numbers about the theater-going public obscure the local and personal reality that is the performing arts.

Theater is a retail business, a small family one on Main Street, not a nationwide big box store just a little bit outside of the town center—and we like it that way.

Lessons can be learned from aggregate measurements and big-business practices, sure. (Lessons can be learned from almost anything, including poking yourself in the eye with a sewing needle—note to self: don’t do that—but anyway.)  Most of all, though, it will always be more important to know your neighbors and remember their values and their individuality. Even at your most successful—maybe filling your two hundred seat theater three weeks in a row—the numbers won’t add up to an easily extrapolated and generalized sample set.

Look instead at the stores and restaurants and bars in your neighborhood that thrive. Who walks through their doors and why? The products they sell work. (Create quality.) They’ve been selling them for a long time, reliably. (Seek longevity.) They know what they sell and why people buy it. (Clarity/branding.) And they sell it with verve and style. (Use your creativity.)

Use surveys to help describe who has walked through your door but don’t let those surveys define who walks through your door. Surveys don’t know. They’re dumb. They are an imperfect measure with a grossly exaggerated sense of self-importance. (63 percent. No reason. Just like the number. Thought I’d write it down and make you wonder who is 63 percent. Statistics. Bah humbug.) Your store, your theater, your production, is its own particular thing, in its own particular neighborhood, and the people who shop with you are, perhaps—sometimes at least— defined more by their individuality within their own community and the peculiar needs of their day-to-day life in the places you live with them than by how much they make or how old they are.

Such is all we have to go on when we lack a large sample set and try instead to consciously connect with a small number of live individuals every night in a theater.