How do we develop audiences for challenging work? (Is that even the right question?!?)

Nancy Hirst, 19 September 2012

The question was raised because of small audiences on a recent national tour, and in Kent particularly the answer seems to be take the work out of venues, put it in the high street, add a circus element etc. But are we really looking at a situation where audiences for work in indoor venues across the nation are falling and there's nothign we can do about it?

One member of the discussion who had programmed a large venue in the southeast for many years felt that audience development was simply about building relationships between audiences and companies, and that as companies became known to audiences they would turn back up for shows.

And that paying for those works needed to be balanced with more commercial shows to pay the programming budget.

To make an audience come, the programmer fel tyou needed either:

1) a familiar show
2) a familiar venue (where the audience trusts anything that the programmer puts on)

3) a familiar company

Issue raised about problems of developing relationships between audiences and

touring companies when smaller companies often need 2 years to develop a show. Particularly when serious/ challenging work being created - takes times to get this right.

Programmer felt that actually 18 months was about hte perfect time between shows in terms of audiences remembering adn wanting to see the next one so that this wasn't an issue.

Programmer wanted themselves to be able to see works-in progress so they could book the company and build a reltaionsihp of trust before selling it to their audiences.

Issues of 1 bad show breaking that auidence following were raised - what level of company do you have to be (ie Kneehigh/ RSC) for that not to put audiences off?

Programmer mentioned that touring stuff that was right for schools is useful as way of getting audiences through doors - problems raised with how do you develop audiences for stuff that isn't in any way right for schools audiences. Rural touring/ outdoors work was raised again as a way of getting work to audiences who might not normally see it, however it was pointed out that there is a difference in the type of work that can be shown outside or inside, and that things like lights and sound are used in theatre buildings because they help minds to focus, and actually it's difficult to show really serious/ challenging work outdoors.

However it was felt that there was a connection in people ‘coming across’ arts outdoors in the high street for instance, and this increasing the likelihood of their then entering arts buildings for a repeat experience. Some disuccssion about whether this in practice ever happened - Arts Council research seems to suggest different findings.

Idea raised that actualy theatre as a medium isn't for everyone and that in fact audiences are higher in places where people generally have a higher level of education - not an innate factor of theatre but to do with teh fact that particularly indoor theatre tends to deal with quite complex and often intellectual ideas and that the theatre language (like shakespeare) can often require training or education to really enjoy.

Others countered: site specific, immersive work can do both of these things, and start engagement with audiences who otherwise wouldn't.

However, this is only true if the site speciific/ immersive event that audiences ‘happen’ on is part of regular diet of events - as a one festival for instance this is difficult to develop into regular arts attendance.

is it jsut changes in society that mean that audiences are going down for theater? Point made that audiences for theatre now seem much smaller when set against web/ digital/ cinema audiences, which will always be on a different scale, but that theatre should not seek to emulate them.

LEngth of run raised as issue - 1 night stands on tours impossible to build word of mouth. 3 weeks provides time for people to tell their friends etc.

Is the one night touring model therefore not great overall?

Difficulties of mid scale touring as ‘a good night out’ - true for rural tourign and london west end stuff but the mid scale can often be quite joyless in terms of catering/ fun/ etc

Problems raised with issue of ‘developing audiences’ - people preferred the term ‘ reaching communities’.

Infrequency of people's visits to theatre means that it is hard to take a risk on unknown work, in the way that audiences do risk stuff at the cinema beause they go more often.

Marketing - someone who had worked in marketing at an arts centre for several years said that actually they had always assumed audience segments did not go to different types of shows, but that actually when they had started tracking this on new computers it was nonsense - audiences quite happily go to comedy, outdoors work, indoor studio stuf etc, and that ‘cross fertilisation’ of different audience types had gone out of fashion but that when used well it was could really develop audiences very successfully.

Use of the new Arts Council auidence segmentation research was raised - different reactions to it, some felt very useful, some not so much. some objected to the mass stereotyping and generalisations, others agreed but felt that actual it was an accurate portrayal of types of audience.

Pricing - an issue in developing audiences? Importance of pricing correctly for your community (particularly for site specific work) but the programmer felt that price didn't really ever put people off coming (eg people would happily pay £25 for a TV comedian, but cry poverty at other points!)


Programming, programming, Audience development, Touring, Audience Development, new work, touring, audience development, challenging work, touring models