Why do you go to the theatre?

Helen Ferguson, 11 July 2012

Who called the session? Helen Ferguson

Who attended the session? Scott Young, Becci Sharrock, Anna Wiseman, Anthony Baker, Hannah Clarke-Stamp, Kate Craddock, Annabel Turpin, Jo Cundall, Phil Douglas, Jenny Duffy, Patricia Stead.

I wanted to find out how we could decide what kind of work is worth making by asking the question why do people come and see it. We started the session with initial responses to the question, which were that theatre was immediate, live, spontaneous and unique to the time you see it. We discussed the fact that some work will attract a bigger audience of people who are interested in specific content, e.g. Newcastle United football, and that it might be interesting to choose your audience before your content or story and create the work that your chosen audience wanted to see (an approach that I am familiar with having worked with Open Clasp). We discussed the impact this would have in terms of bringing those audiences back, they might come back if they had a good experience the first time, we can tempt them with content that's really interesting to them then bring them back to see other stuff after that.

One person raised the issue of fitting in with both arts council funding and artistic integrity, and the difficulty of pleasing the arts council and the audience - later in the conversation we talked about how important it was to make your audience care about what they're seeing and also making sure they feel cared about, making this a key principle in people's work could help solve this problem.

We then went on to discuss feedback and how people could make their work better and so more appealing for audiences and repeat attenders. I felt there wasn't a good way of dealing with the situation of seeing a show that you didn't think was any good made or performed by some one or a company that you like/are friends with/have worked with and supported - surely it's more pragmatic for us to be honest with each other in order to raise the quality of the work that is produced. A possible solution is people asking for critique - explicitly saying ‘could and how could this be made better?’, one contributor who isn't from the region strongly felt that there wasn't enough critique of each other's work in the North East, and I felt that there was too much of a ‘back patting’ culture. Is the arts a subjective artform? We want organisations to give more critique of other people's work and their own projects. We were concerned that audiences sometimes can't distinguish between work that just wasn't to their taste or work that they don't think was of good quality - this was especially prevalent when discussing contemporary performance work (such as the work seen at GIFT), and we want to engage more audiences and progrmmers with this work - do they not engage because they just don't get it? and if they don't get it should they go to see it/programme it?

Is it about how we label/market things? Community theatre gets big audiences because of the relationship with the work and the people in it, we need to find a way of introducing that relationship to a piece of work or company that's only in town for one night, mixing local groups with a show/company can encourage them to come and see the work (Annabel Turpin's report on artists developing a relationship with their audience talks more about ways to do this), essentially it's about a more personal approach to marketing - it's that relationship to the work or company that makes you want to see it.

The main basic responses to the question were things like - it makes you feel something, Emotional response, cathartic release, to be moved, to be nourished, to steal ideas and to see what doesn't work, to see what others are doing, the content, because you're passionate about it. - like football fans watching a live game. Also the shared experience of being amongst others seeing that thing at that time. Annabel explained that she missed this shared experience when watching work played on headphones.

It's important for the theatre maker to decide what they want the eventual experience to be - in terms of the experience and environment as well as the content.

Taking risks is very different for artists, venues or companies - easier for a venue to take a risk on a piece of work that might not get massive audiences but companies and artists, especially those applying for Grants for the arts funding and aiming at big audiences.

We discussed exit flyering and entry flyering - and it was suggested that the usher tells them why he or she is giving them the flyer ‘this is something you might enjoy too!’.

Annabel said that she thinks every piece of theatre should acknowledge it's audience in some way, this can be in a very subtle way such as making sure they care about what they're seeing or making them laugh, Kate and I believe this is an exchange between performers and audience, if one cares about the other then the other must care about them too.

We love the ‘liveness’ of theatre, the high risk of it and wanting to see people make mistakes, you get audiences on your side with real drama! We like to be happy and entertained, we want to get lost in a story that makes us think, we appreciate the effort of live performance, the one offness, how special it is.

The difference between theatre and film/tv is that you decide what you watch and 2 things can change everytime it's seen - the audience and the performance, with non live mediums only the audience can change.

Is it ok to tweet during a show? Some said yes some said no. I think we decided that it depends on the work, and that we need to make it clear to the audiences we want that there are different types of live performances on offer - there is the formality of getting dressed up and going to the ballet but there is also the 40 minute short play that you can go and see on a whim with your mates in the same way that you can go to the pub, going to the theatre doesn't always have to be a big deal! And the formality often puts people off, however we should be careful not to change forms that are already working for their audiences - such as the ballet of the opera. Anna talked about WYP's ‘tweet seats’ - an idea that Annabel was very keen on, seats at the back of the theatre where people are allowed to tweet. Anthony talked about the ‘code of conduct’ at the tyneside cinema, is this something only appropriate to cinema? Or could we introduce a ‘what you can do’ list to live performances - e.g. tweet about the show, go to use the loo in the middle of it. We need to find ways of communicating what we want to communicate to our audiences - get better at communicating what the experience will be for them. And artists should have to decide what they want it to be when making the work.

The programmers in the circle expressed that when people are trying to sell a show to them they DO NOT want to hear ‘it’s for everyone' - they're never going to be able to sell it to everyone and it shows you haven't thought about your audience. 50 people is good! If you go in and say I want/think I can get 50 people to come and see this show, then that is good!

So, to sum up - decide what you want to make your work about, what experience you want the audience to have, how you're going to get people to see it and make the work spontaneous - I don't want to hear another director or theatre maker say: do that again exactly how you just did it - we love theatre because it's different every night and different for everyone!


critique, audience behaviour, Audiences, theatre experience, making work, audiences, marketing