If theatre is to develop, should we look inwards for a bit rather than using audiences as a measure of success

Convener(s): Matthew Austin

Participants: Matt, James Stenhouse, Gemma Paintin, Chris Goode, Jo and lots of other people who came and went and whose names I didn’t catch

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations: 

We began by discussing who we make theatre for and what we term as success. Is it okay to make theatre which you might have total faith in, but only a handful of people see and enjoy?  Should we empower audiences with Open Space technology and let them use the law of the two feet more freely during theatre?

The discussion broadly covered two issues – the role of the audience in the creation of work (and I hope I’m not being presumptive in saying that we were mostly talking about devised theatre), and what were the most useful models in developing new work.

Fairly quickly we got onto the notion of artist development, and the idea that audiences should be involved in the development of new pieces of work, and we began talking about the scratch model and the benefits or otherwise of creating work through this process.

There were a number of questions about how useful scratch or work-in-progress performances are if the audience is largely made up of people from within the ‘industry’.  There was discussion about theatrical literacy, about how useful feedback is from people who don’t know about your work or who have a particular design on how you should move it forward.

We wondered whether genuine audiences (those not involved in the industry) really care about artist development.  Do they want to watch a piece grow, or would they rather pitch up at the end and see the finished piece.  There was a good point made about how the development of work in front of an audience, which appears to be the dominant culture at the moment, was essentially operating in ever-decreasing circles of theatrical literacy – from a group of artists feeding back on initial ideas, through work-in-progress performance, to the commercial stage where, perhaps, audiences seeing the work only go to the theatre once or twice a year. 

Perhaps artists do scratches or work-in-progress shows just to get a show on its feet, rather than to hear feedback.  There seemed to be agreement that often that feedback isn’t that useful, and rarely informs the work, rather the opportunity to perform in front of audience is the most valuable thing.  Do companies and venues see scratch/w-i-ps as a marketing tool, where audiences are drip-fed a piece of work from initial idea to finished product – that there is a journey. 

Then we talked about making work, and making work that perhaps people don’t want to see, and what that work is worth.  Is the idea bad? Are the company not very good? Or is it just the wrong time for that piece of work, and perhaps in five years people will see its worth?

There was also a conversation about the ethics of charging for work, and how that seems to put a value on it, that if its free people see it as worthless, but as an artist, often a higher ticket price puts unnecessary pressure on your work.

We compared the development of new work to the business world, where companies invest in R&D in order to remain competitive, although in business or manufacturing you have to prove your skill before you are allowed to even develop a proto-type.  There seems to be an expectation at the moment that anyone can be an artist, anyone can make a show and expect people to pay to see it; a feeling from emerging artists that there is some kind of entitlement to a funding stream and an audience, and that actually artists should have to earn their stripes before those things start to seep through.  And that perhaps if audiences keep shrinking and shrinking that there’s a time to call it a day and decide that maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t be a professional artist because there simply isn’t a demand for your work.

Then we argued that perhaps R&D and works in progress are exactly the kind of thing we should be investing in because people need to have space and time to find their voice, to define and refine what it is they do as artists.  If this facility isn’t there, how do the talented young artists of the future get their foot in the door?

So, in conclusion… The creation of new work is always going to be a reaction to what has gone before, a sense that younger artists want to change the status quo, and that we have to find ways to get audiences to join us on that journey.  We can be responsible as artist for setting the criteria for how theatre is developed and how our limited opportunities are distributed. 

And that perhaps we shouldn’t be so fearful of how big those audiences are and what they think of the work on the first steps of that journey.  That as artists, we have to be the makers of change, we have to predict what the audiences of the future will want, even if that seems unpalatable to the audiences around us right now, and that we should look to grow audiences which go the whole way with us, and that that’s when things start getting exciting.

Please do add here anything I’ve missed if you were there…