Lauren Jansen-Parkes, 10 January 2016

This was a long, intense and lively discussion chaired by Lauren Jansen-Parkes, with

Hardish Virk, Frances Land, Hayley Frances, Anthony Lee, Louisa Davies, Kirsten

Burrows, Wendy Petitdemange, Mike Kaloski-Naylor, Karen Kidman, Mary-Jayne,

Chris Bridgeman, Tom Spencer, Sandra Hall, Gavin Thatcher, Vimal Korpal and

Vivian Ezugha. Although no hard and fast solution was reached (or even possible?),

examples of projects and practice across the UK were shared, with many key

challenges identified. It's important to highlight that though there's lots of work to do,

the work that's already being done needs to be celebrated!

The discussion began with questioning what is meant by “hard to reach.” Terminology

within and around arts organisations changes regularly and rapidly, with work focused

around “audience development”, “new audiences”, “areas of low engagement” and

“cultural cold spots” (to name but a few). There's no blanket term that recognises the

complexity and diversity of the broad group labelled as having limited, or no access to

or experience of the arts. Examples were given of work in places such as Young

Offenders Institutes, in hospitals and care homes where people are physically unable

to leave, and the role visiting artists can play. Which communities are ‘targeted’, and

how and why they are underpinned the discussion, with a strong awareness that

artists/organisations' motives are key to prevent engagement being patronising and

pointless. Groups and individuals can often be aware that they are seen as

“outcomes”, and communities know when they are simply having marketing thrown at

them in order to fill seats and tick boxes.

Throughout the conversation Francis (Black Country Touring) and Wendy (Inside Out)

shared their experiences working directly in and with communities with limited access

to the arts in the Midlands and Dorset. Sandra spoke about the work of Friction Arts in

inner-city Birmingham and across the Globe, and Tom shared examples of short-term,

‘explosions of work’ by touring companies, inviting local people to a show by busking

on the streets. Kirsten highlighted the work of Dante or Die rehearsing and performing

in leisure centres across Surrey, and Louisa spoke about The RSC's pilot sites project.

Gavin gave examples of programming family work from Bromsgrove's Artrix centre,

and Hardish shared key insights from consulting for a range of arts organisations,

especially his work with the National Trust and Talking Birds.


VOLUNTARY SECTOR: Highlighted early on was how valuable the knowledge,

experience and approach of voluntary community organisations is - we have a lot to

learn. Collaborating with or consulting voluntary community groups/key gatekeepers

can be extremely valuable in identifying/ accessing potentially ‘invisible’ communities

and/or when making work tailored for a particular community.

TIME: Developing audiences and forging relationships takes time, as does the

research needed to make work that reflects and speaks to a distinct group of people. It

takes time for ‘the word to spread’. A key challenge discussed was the relatively short

time frame in which creative work is often made and marketed, both in larger

institutions and smaller companies. Audience development is a long term investment,

requiring research to develop appropriate tools/methodologies! Equally, the

relationships and trust needed to be able to make work in/for/with a community needs

time, space and investment (emotional and financial) - and often the realities of

workloads, funding and time available makes this difficult.

However! The short-term projects and visiting ‘events’ can have a powerful

reach/impact, and shouldn't be dismissed.

LEGACY: Are we too concerned about legacy? Are we doing ourselves, and our work

a disservice by only judging it by what it leaves behind? (Have we been brainwashed

by funding bodies?) How realistic is it to expect that every community

intervention/outreach project will result in a host of regular theatre goers, or create

new theatre companies? Evaluation is a key process from the start - what is the aim of

this work, and why are we doing it? The possibility of raising aspirations and

potentially letting people down, or feeling like we're abandoning people because a

project has finished can be difficult - especially when under pressure to validate why

the work we're doing is valuable. Can it ever be enough to simply say “We've created

a positive shared experience with/for people”. If this is acceptable in a large theatre

venue, why not in a community setting?

SPORTING CHANCE: Comparisons to sports teams/fans were many, as a recognised

‘accessible activity’ - e.g. the cost and comparative value of a season ticket vs theatre

ticket, and how the two activities are so differently viewed. “Is there a forum of sports

people somewhere wondering how to engage artists in their local football team?”

GRASSROOTS/INSTITUTIONS - The endless, ongoing debate - should we be taking

theatre out ‘into the community’ or finding ways to bring people into the theatre? The

reality is that many people feel that the ‘arts aren’t for us', and don't feel welcome in

the buildings that house large arts institutions, and for reasons that go beyond cost

(although this is a key factor). “Publicly funded arts organisations who don't have

diverse audiences are not serving the very people who pay their wages”. Smaller

organisations can plant seeds to help people access other cultural offerings, and

actively create pathways into larger, more ‘daunting’ arts insitutions. They're

sometimes able to have the direct conversations with people that other organisations

can't - “what do you want?” They can also challenge perceptions of what counts as

“arts” or “culture” within communities - e.g. storytelling and music shared for free within

religious settings is no less ‘cultured’ than a play at a local theatre - and

examining/reframing this experience can aid in building relationships between arts

organisations and local communities.

Closer connections between smaller/lager organisations would make this more

possible.Large publicly funded organisations have a responsibility to initiate and invest

in these connections, to actively help sustain an environment in which local work can

thrive. Access to larger institutions can be more difficult (for theatre companies and

individuals) when different departments aren't joined up - where community

engagement is a wraparound, or separate/isolated department, rather than an

engrained approach running through the core.

Arts organisations of all sizes are caught in the key dillemma - should we be creating

work for a particular audience, or creating an audience for our work? Though smaller

companies/organisations and larger arts institutions have potentially different aims

enagaging with people, and different methods in doing so, this doesn't mean either's

work is any less valuable. There might be several organisations engaging or working

with/in one area or community and each doing so in a distinct way. Rather than

competing in an environment of decreasing resources, or “being at 6's and 7's with

each other”, could we start seeing each other as valuable resources to draw on -

sharing experience and knowledge, working in collaboration and ‘joining the dots’


THE ELITE EXPERIENCE: Where does the responsibility for making the

‘theatre-going experience’ accessible lie? It's a daunting experience, with so many

rules/expectations to negotiate. Abandoning jargon can be one step - e.g. changing

‘Box Office’ to ‘Sales and information’ or announcing that “the show will start in 10

minutes” rather than “the house is open”!

'Dresscodes' - explicit and unspoken were a key area of discussion. Everyone has

either seen people ‘dressed up’ to go to the theatre or done it themselves. It's arguably

part of the ritual of going out for the evening, adding to the sense of doing something

special/unusual. It's a common question to box office staff - especially for Christmas

shows - ‘is there a dresscode?’ It highlights the exclusive nature of ‘going to the

theatre’ - another barrier. Theatre shouldn't be something unusual, only to be

experienced/afforded on a special occasion, and challenging what people should/can

wear is part of challenging that assumption. (There was a suggestion of beginning a

‘wear your onesie to the theatre’ day!)

Although… there is value in the ‘special experience’ that theatre can give - the sense

that ‘this has been made for you’. The concept of ‘this not being for everyone’ is too

often exclusionary, but it can also be positive, a ‘gift’ given to the people a particular

piece/experience speaks to.

ARTS AS THE ENGAGEMENT TOOL: We shouldn't underestimate the value of the

arts as the very tool through which to engage people with cultural offerings. Examples

were shared of storytelling to build relationships and creative workshops exploring

what theatre visits might be like! Another example was given of working closely with

government agencies can bring benefits to both parties - funding and access to

diverse communities for theatre companies who provide a more flexible and creative

approach to strategic inclusion work.

INVITATIONS AND CONVERSATION: Free tickets don't work. At least, they don't

work unless they are part of a wider offer, an invitation of some kind - whether person

to person, or by the building itself.

We have to recognise the reality of capacity - we can do all the

development/engagement work we like, but if there's not space or tickets available

what good will it do? Are we at risk of only making less popular work available?

There's a hierarchy even within ticket booking itself - “Oh I'm sorry, you can't have a

ticket to that show, the members with early booking have already bought them.”

Likewise, the financial implications make restricting ticket sales (e.g. not allowing a

very popular show to sell out at full price in advance to allow later bookers to access

ticket offers) unrealistic. ‘Pay what you like’ schemes can be risky - publicly funded

organisations have a duty to ensure financial stability alongside accessibility.

Barriers to access can sometimes be more basic or practical than we think. What

would happen if theatres had a creche available? Or programmed work at different

times - e.g. promoting family shows with wraparound activities during the summer


EVERYONE AN AUDIENCE: How do we choose who is an audience? Is everyone

who walks through the doors of a building (even if they're just using the bathroom), a

potential audience member? Is everyone who walks past a piece of work in the street?

An invitation to participate has to be at the core of every aspect of the activities we do

and buildings and spaces we do them in. Someone might not want to see a particular

show, but something else might bring them back - whether it's hearing a favourite song

sung by buskers on the street, a nice clean toilet, an eyecatching leaflet, an interesting

picture in the foyer, a memory of something unusual in a familiar place, or a comfy

seat and affordable cup of coffee.


Inclusion, publicly funded arts, inclusion, Access, access, Diversity, Elitism, Cultural

Capital, Community, elitism, community, adults, cultural capital, diversity, grassroots

organisations, cold spots, voluntary sector, ticket offers