The Polonius Test

To evaluate the authenticity of your business offering, James Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine, authors of Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want  (mentioned in the previous post), suggest taking the Polonius Test. Famously in Hamlet, Polonius imparts fatherly wisdom, cliche after cliche, to his departing son Laertes. The most durable of these gems being: “This above all, — to thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night they day, Thou canst not then be false to any man” (1.3.80-82). Gilmore and Pine tease this out into two key questions for rendering authenticity for any good, service, or experience. “Is the offering true to itself?” and “Is the offering what it says it is?” There are four possible combinations of resultant answers — Real-Real, Real-Fake, Fake-Real, and Fake-Fake.

Some quick corporate examples:

  • Fake-Fake =  artificial sweeteners, artificial turf, fake plants, soy burgers.
  • Fake-Real = Disney world, automated book recommendations from Amazon.
  • Real-Fake = gas burning fireplace, planned suburban communities, custom wines (but not actually your own vineyard).
  • Real-Real = Apple, The Body Shop, Coca-Cola, Harley-Davidson, Whole Foods.

So now what about theatre as an experiential “offering”? Where does it fall on the matrix according to the Polonius Test? I would argue that theatre is in these terms Fake-Real. Is it what it says it is? No. The story presented for our consumption is clearly a fiction. The emotional issues or intellectual conundrums that we are invited to engaged with are entirely fake. Is it true to itself? Yes. Even through the fake content, theatre offers a real experience, presenting the audience with pleasure and real insight and potential for real-world transformation. As a business model, there is nothing wrong with being a Fake-Real, as long as you do it well. Theatre does all the things that Gilmore and Pine recommend; most notably creating belief in the fabrication. (A meticulous fabrication not a fake). “People put aside what it actually is — inauthentic — to believe what it says it is” (109).

Now next step…what happens when the “fake” elements of theatre are replaced with real ones? When the fabrication is not a fabrication but the original thing itself, then does theatre become a Real-Real? Yes, I think it does. According to Gilmore and Pine, as experiences become more customized, more authentic, they move beyond experiences to become “transformations.” Transformations are defined as “effectual outcomes that guide customers to change some dimension of self…calling human beings to a higher goal and providing a foretaste of a better way” (47, 50). This then is the highest kind of offering.  In terms of the potential for this kind of activist performance model, I think that yes, this is what Real-Real theatre is capable of.

Question: How is the Real-Real theatre as defined in this way compatible with (or not) Jill Dolan’s concept of utopian performatives which are also premised on a real-real synergy.?

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4 responses to “The Polonius Test

  1. …perhaps not entirely Real-Real, but approaching Real-Real shall we say. Theatre made up entirely of real elements would crash back into life without being a fiction at all presumably.

  2. I think the Polonius Test is intriguing, but fails on a couple of points here:
    1) This really doesn’t work as a matrix test, as neither of the defining questions are dichotomys
    2) They are framing their questions in a creator-focused rather than user-focused way, which creates obvious problems when you are trying to engineer a experience FOR THE USER
    3) Their examples given are too far spread to be useful in comparison

    Also, as you do acknowledge, we can’t really throw all theatre in one category here, as different pieces within theatre use very different means and aim for very different experiences.

    To address these issues:
    1) We have to recognize truth is an ideal here (as I understand the authors do acknowledge this later on). Nothing is going to end up a pure yes on this test, and nothing should: giving such definitive answers weakens the test as a gauge of change, and discounts individual experiences that should be the core focus. The questions are much better phrased along the line of adherence to the ideal: “How close is the offering to what it says it is?” and “How true is the offering to itself?”
    2) Seeing as we are trying to analyse user experience with this test, we must focus the questions squarely at the user. The questions are actually 2 steps away from where they need to be, as they are questioning creators about themselves rather than the user experience of their creations. The creations have no actual self to be true to.

    The questions should be more like “How close is the user’s experience to their expected experience?” and “How close is the user experience to the objective truth of the experience?” The second question actually becomes redundant in this phrasing, as in gauging the experience the objective truth only really matters insofar as it affects the user experience.

    Expected to Actual is a more useful model for experiential authenticity than “Is it true to itself?”

  3. Using an Expected to Actual model for experiential authenticity does a much better job of explaining the ‘prosumer’ phenomenon than “Is it true to itself?” If anything, adding more authors would make the end product less true to itself as it would be dragged in all directions. E2A easily explains the phenomenon, as the user is able to manipulate the actual to match expectations. This also explains why sometimes an abstraction can provide a more authentic experience than the thing in itself: an abstraction requires each audience member to take ownership, crafting an imaginary form that is necessarily close to their own expectations, whereas the thing itself could be markedly different.

    E2A envelopes the “Is it what it says it is?” question as well: when an offering says it is something it is creating an expectation that is then compared with the actual experience. This also covers the unsettling case of counterfeits being judged as “authentic”: as long as the actual experience does not uncover the ruse, the experience is judged equally authentic as if the counterfeit were real. With E2A, a fabrication is a representation agreed upon, forming an expectation, whereas a fake is a representation that when discovered breaks an expectation.

    Finally, to the question that was actually asked, I do not agree that this kind of experiential authenticity leads to transformation. Using the E2A model this becomes readily apparent, as the audience is getting exactly what they expect. Even using the given “Is it true to itself?” test, the endpoint is a platonic stasis. I think the REAL-REAL standard is dangerous if the aim is transformational theatre: replacing abstractions with a thing itself is a counterproductive waste of resources if your goal is authenticity, and authenticity is counterproductive if your goal is change.

    Why then is audience participation an effective means for transformational theatre?

  4. Why then is audience participation an effective means for transformational theatre?

    Because it is inauthentic: it is based not on agreement within oneself, but community, agreement within a group. Community is powerfully transformative because we are able to see not only the space between our own expected ideals selves with our actions, but the space between the ideal and actions of many: theatrical community is more likely to be transformative than the everyday because these spaces are drawn to the surface, and because a focus is facilitated. I would argue what strengthens documentary theatre’s transformative qualities is not the sense of authenticity but a sense of an expanded community. Within a standard theatre environment there are limits to the size of audience and level of participation that set a boundary to the possible community: by facilitating interactions between the audience and past audiences or external individuals documentary theatre breaks free of those bounds.

    We go beyond the aut-hentes (self doing) of authenticity to the com-munas (together work) of community.

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