Customers or Audience? How do we reclaim creative language to describe our thoughts and processes 

Convener(s): Rebecca Manson Jones

Participants: Jon Grieve, Angela Unsworth, Julia Tamokey, Abi Hester, Caroline Pearce, Chris Grady, John Challis, Ed Rashbrooke, Ed Kemp, Nadine Ishani, Rob Houghton, Alan Wen, Rikki Tarascas and other bees, giraffes, butterflies and fauna species unknown. 

This discussion roamed through marketing, business, arts council mcmaster speak , theatrical parlance and council tickbox jargon. 

As the convenor I was surprised that so much of the discussion centred on Marketing and the language of talking to audiences. The original intention of the question was not the specific example of Audience vs Customers but more the problem of which this is a symptom. However, I embraced the surprise and our thoughts about how we speak to an audience led us into other fertile territory. 

The group kindly let me get my distress off my chest about the way I think theatre-makers and producers are in danger of cheapening and homogenizing our work. If we allow ourselves to submit to the tyranny of a language which may be imposed on us by corporate industry, public sector jargon, the arts council buzz words eg: excellence, innovation, creativity etc. I worry that we both try to impress business and funders and each other by using management speak that we don’t really understand (always) and overuse terms such as excellence, accessibility, innovative and all the others and resulting in a generalization and laziness in our writing/speaking which could affect our thoughts and actions.

Other people in the group seemed to reflect that I’m more worried than I need be which helps me hugely. I hope they are right. 

A large part of the discussion focused on speaking to audiences and/or customers through websites and marketing. Many people seemed to think that we provide the public with too much specific information which doesn’t mean much to them: eg using tags like new writing and integrated theatre which are terms often understood only by people working in the “industry/business/sector”; at the expense of helping them to understand why they might enjoy the experience of being in the audience. 

This examination of language led us into exploring the use of different registers of language in communication with different audiences.

The advent of websites offers us opportunities to communicate with an unprecedented range of audiences and “stakeholders” through one forum. Our business rep reminded us that Corporations often have two sites, the one they use to talk eg: bank to bank and a second which they use to talk to customers and potential customers.

Could this be something for theatre organizations to consider? – eg: programmers and makers need different information about work than potential paying audience or current and future participants in a theatre’s work do.

How can we achieve consistency in message and vision and be adaptable – staying within the brand?

We touched on what strategies we might adopt to resist being dragged into forms of language and behaviour which don’t sit well with our ways of working and what we believe. It was suggested that everything we produce is a way of talking to an audience and needs to be targeted and also that it may be easier for smaller independent companies to keep their modes of communication clear and honest.

As someone who has been part of mid-scale organisations/institutions this is one to take away – how to keep the message close to the essence of the work internally and externally.

There were pockets of passion about how language in theatre and in life generally is being overused, abused, debased and somehow sealed, laminated, so that it is losing all meaning. As artists we have a privilege and a duty to observe and resist this muddying of terms and also an opportunity to explore and reinvent language. I think someone coined a term whilst we talked and I’m sorry I’ve forgotten it. 

The words Sector and Industry were batted about and of course, they mean different things to different people.  I’ve been freed from a fear of the word Sector which is what I’ll most strongly take from this hour.  To help with that discussion we used sketches – hurray! 

One of the most important questions raised was whether this abasement or reduction of language (if you think it exists) is affecting the work which is produced? Personally that was the point of convening the discussion. My fear is that losing facets of our language and theatrical parlance could result in an impoverishment of thought and therefore what we produce and how we produce it. I’m not sure we answered it and perhaps because I’m more worried than we need be. Someone raised the point that verbal language is only 20% of the way we communicate. The 80% of non-verbal communication in our group indicated that most people acknowledged there was a question to answer but that they felt quite optimistic or confident in their ability to ensure that this impoverishment doesn’t happen.

People talked about language as a vehicle to carry meaning - and that all we need to do is select the right conveyance to carry our meaning in.  All I ask is that we don’t all select an Austin Allegro.