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Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

Understanding Audiences (really, actually, deeply)

Kirsty Sedgman - 14 January 2017

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Called by: Kirsty Sedgman

I've been walking around having these same conversations all day, but it was nice to bring them together into one event.

As someone who researches audiences, I'm frustrated by how we understand (or misunderstand) the people for whom our work is made. Too often we in the cultural industries find ourselves talking ABOUT audiences rather than TO them - or talking to them, but only in specific and restricted ways. We want (or feel we need) to know who they are, where they come from, why they engage or don't with the stuff we make. But we're often very bad at drawing out what it is that people actually get out of theatrical events. How do they find meaning and value in performances? How do they make sense of their responses, and what do they do with these experiences afterwards? And what manoeuvres do they go through in bringing varying sets of criteria to bear on artistic events: how do they take up subject positions in relation to the work by drawing on senses of self, community, place, family, home? People wanted to know what researchers can actually DO with this information. We talked about how this approach explores more than just the ‘impact’ and ‘outcome’ of cultural projects. In fact, it taps into an urgent societal question: how do we understand people's personal and political value systems? And how can the (sometimes competing, sometimes complementary) value systems applied to theatre, culture, art, intersect with these wider beliefs and understandings? Bad stuff is happening on the political stage, and many people are supporting it. We need to figure out the PROCESSES by which different people reach different conclusions - both about the kind of world in which we wish to live, and how we get there. Theatrical events can be a microcosm for this kind of critical attention; understanding participation within theatre can help us to understand participation in the social sphere. It is through apprehending audiences on this deeper level that our work can make a difference in the world.

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COMMENTS: 3

Phil Cleaves

15 January 2017

Could the cause of the disconnect be in the very use of the word ‘audience’? It proposes a sense of generalisation that leads to presumptions about that group. Would using the word ‘spectator’ individualise the different members of the audience and shift how theatre makers / programmers think about the people engaging with theatre?
Kirsty Sedgman

15 January 2017

A good question. The problem with ‘spectator’ is that it shifts the emphasis on to viewing as an act of reception, rather than co-creation. There's been a lot of efforts to reconsider the role of audiences by shifting nomenclature; for example, Forced Entertainment call their audiences ‘witness’, Lone Twin call them ‘invited guests’. Other potentials include participant, co-producer, percipient… But none are free of value judgements. My use of the word ‘audience’ is an act of reclamation Within both theatre practice and scholarship, big assumptions are often made about ‘audience response’ (no matter how those audiences are asked to engage in the work, as makers or as watchers). When I talk about ‘audiences’, I'm referring to individual audience members - and what, diversely, they themselves believe about their experiences. It's also important to remember that ‘audience studies’ has a long intellectual history behind it. Using the word doesn't prevent us from asking what an audience actually is or does - in fact, it necessitates that.
Chris Grady

15 January 2017

Not sure I am saying anything new but for me it is about knowing the individual people (or at least their type/character map) that we want to be on our “front row”. That could be in a workshop, at a theatre, in a festival field, or at any form of engagement. If I hosted a dinner party, or a pre-Christmas drinks thing, I would put out invitations to particular people. I would think about the time that matched the maximum chance of attendance. I would stock my fridge with things they might like for this particular event. I wouldn't go its 7.30 Friday and we always have fish - take it or leave it.

I think we need to get as personal in our understanding of the people who may be excited, entertained, engaged with our work. Make it a conversation that we have with them (maybe only theoretically role playing in the marketing department) but hopefully by talking with representatives of each community we are trying to reach. It takes time. It takes personal attention. It takes a change of attitude from the top of an organisation. We may be able to encourage them to come at 7.30 for fish, but we have to start with something they'd really like whilst we build trust.

Cheers
Chris

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