Rural Theatre - Are We Underestimating Our Audience?

Tabitha Grove, 5 October 2012

I called this session because of my frustration of theatre companies, specifically rurally based theatre companies, choosing the material they produce because they want to keep it safe and have a guarenteed audience and not because they want to produce exciting, innovative work. Briefly, these were the points raised.

- Is there an audience outside of the loyal theatre-goers that would be interested in different types of theatre?

- We want to have as diverse audience as possible without alienating the loyal theatre goers (typically, though not exclusively, white, wealthy and over 50).

- Is it the theatre companies that won't produce the new stuff or is it the theatres that won't book it? It could be a combination of the two and there might be more communication needed.

- Everyone is very aware that financially, theatres are struggling at the moment so some companies feel a responsibility to produce work that will definitely pull in good numbers - especially if companies are very closely connected to theatres.

- New and exciting projects are starting to thrive in rural areas, they just need time to grow and their reputation to start to proceed them. The audience, from all backgrounds including the usual loyal folks, do exist.

- In order to allow this to happen maybe other less high profile venues such as pubs need to be explored. As projects and companies get more of a following they can move up to the bigger venues if needs be. That way, a company can ensure a good turn out and the theatre can have a broad programme of events and shows. A good example of this is The Little Festival of Everything in Coxwold, suspision may have surrounded the event as it started but as more and more people (audience, locals) start to become familiar with it, the more confident they are to get involved and enjoy it. New audience demographics can be built.

- Promotion is obviously also incredibly important. How much information do we actually give audience? If we say ‘there’s a thing, come see it' are we more likely gain a curious audience or if we give people too much information are we going to scare them off? The balance needs to be made. Do we just lie? Tell ‘em it’s Miss Julie and when they get there give them Fringe at it's's an option.

- The idea of not charging for traditional ticket prices but instead asking for a whip round at the end of the day works well in less formal setting and can sometimes encourage more people. Especially when in a pub-like setting, however, it can also be a risky process.

In short, yes we are underestimating our audiences. If the attitude of creating theatre to ensure audience is being taken then maybe those attitudes have to be re-assessed. The audience is there, we can't make assumptions about who likes what. All we can do is find ways of theatres/venues and companies meeting in the middle. We need to produce bold new work and try not to allow either party to be out of pocket. Theatres do rely on bums-on-seats but there are ways of doing that, that allow the ‘classics’

(which were often pretty controversial in their time) to sit happily alongside new and exciting work. We need to be brave, explore those ways, build much stronger rural theatre connections and take


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