“I’d rather be down the pub” – The problem with audiences

Convener(s): Sam Sampson

Participants: Varied (please write your name below if you were there!)

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

Following several recent attempts to attract new audience members to events and workshops by removing practical barriers (cost, transport, timing) all of which pretty much failed, I was left with the question: Why don’t people consider the theatre as an option for something to do? What can we do to overcome this?

We decided quickly that the main barrier is a cultural one – theatre is thought of as difficult/worthy/expensive without an individual piece necessarily being any of those things. When theatre works, when it focuses on and exploits its ‘theatreness’ and liveness, it can provide amazing experiences. How to communicate this to people who haven’t had a similar experience? It becomes a bit chicken and egg – getting people over the threshold is key.

Lyn pointed out that amateur theatre has never had a problem with audiences – perhaps we should (re)think taking theatre to people rather than trying to force them into buildings or through box offices. How can this inform professional theatre? Why is the divide between them thought of as so sharp?

Or we could take more care to craft the whole theatre experience, from the first marketing contact through to beyond seeing the show? Integrated offerings like A Play, a Pie and a Pint possibly offer some beginnings for this alongside larger-scale pervasive efforts/theatre phenomena? 

Could we reintroduce or emphasise the social nature/social contract of the audience? Should we? Would allowing/encouraging audiences to be more verbal give them the ownership and engagement to be passionate about theatre?

Theatre lives by its audience and the theatre making community, ie by people. Encouraging growth, diversity and flux in this body of people must (?) be good for the future of theatre.

There was some fun discussion of why we should(n’t) be trying to convert new audiences. Something we need to say every day: Theatre is not a panacea! Not everyone needs/should go to the theatre every day or every other day BUT – theatre should be ‘on the menu’ for everyone, so how can we communicate what it is and does well to first-time audiences?

Why is it that people see a bad play and write off theatre as a whole? (Is this even true, and what proof do we have?). A bad film or a bad book doesn’t stop people watching or reading. Possible link to ubiquity, marketing muscle, cultural status. Cultural status is a weird one - to change it would necessarily take years of focused work/lobbying/pressure, but think of the benefits! Obviously it poses all kinds of problems and raises questions way beyond theatre, but are those the terms that we need to think in?

Why target new audiences? Surely a theatre maker would prefer informed/experienced theatre goers to evaluate/experience their piece of art? Well, this isn’t always the case (cf children’s theatre, where the lack of a predictable/experience audience has to be woven into the work). And due to the wider theatre ecology, some plays need first time audiences or there’s no sustainability.

Theatre needs audiences more than vice versa.