Dismayed and confused

Many interesting questions were promised at yesterday’s 2-hour symposium from Creativeworks London, ‘More than Accessible*: Theatre and Performance in the Age of the Spectator’. But I came away dispirited. Though, writing that title now, I can see a more downbeat reading was possible.


Surely, theatre and performance has always and forever been in an age of the spectator – been FOR the spectator? Perhaps its only now those spectators take it upon themselves to have a voice (Twitter, Facebook …), they have become a troubling concept.


Evaluation image by Steve Hyland - Tate Collective Liverpool's Blueprint festival for Circuit .

Evaluation image by Steve Hyland – Tate Collective Liverpool’s Blueprint festival for Circuit.+


Or, not all of them. The exercise underpinning this event had been an extended conversation between people who are fans of theatre and go a lot. Avowedly. Selected to be so. I’m sure they all enjoyed themselves very much, and they certainly thought that what they had to say about the experience of attending performances was worth saying.


But not about the performance. Because if an audience member were to say some thing about the actual performance …? Those people in the room who produce performance or theatre works looked blank. The thought that an audience member (who wasn’t a critic or one of their friends or peers) could say anything interesting about a performance seemed not to have occurred to most of them. Worse: if the audience were invited to say something, it might lead to an expectation the performers or directors would pay some attention to what they said. Heaven forfend! Were they expected to produce work by committee?


What staggered me most was a seeming complete absence** of excitement among those producers to know what their audiences thought of them – or even to know if their audiences had been moved, uplifted, angered, sorrowed, repulsed. The audience was there to be performed at, not to be co-generators of a special moment.


One even said that in his view the point of art was to have no impact at all!


Hardly anyone in the session could say the words ‘marketing’, ‘evaluation’, ‘feedback’, ‘Arts Council’, ‘impact’, ‘funders’ without them being mired in a sneer, or a rage. All of the above are the enemy, judging by the tone of voice.


But here’s the thing. Marketing is there to get people to come and see your work, so that you make an income so you can keep making work. In the crowded London (at least) scene there is so much choice that even if people are gagging to go and see a performance, there are still dozens (maybe hundreds) to choose from on any given night. So someone has to tell them about yours, and hope to goodness they pay attention. In order to tell them, you need to know either where they live or what they pay attention to for their information. Which means asking them. Or (and this was one of those interesting questions that never got discussed) you have to win their loyalty, as a venue or as a theatre company, so they will seek you out and come to watch whatever you put on, because they trust you.


But they will only trust you if they’ve had a rewarding experience with you in the past. So asking audiences and entering into a conversation with them, not only lets you find out if they’ve had a rewarding experience (and therefore you might rely on them to come back) but can also help them evaluate their experience and realise, or articulate, the fact that they have had a rewarding experience. Or not.


So don’t evaluate or ask for feedback reluctantly. And don’t do it if you’re just going to ignore it. Do it because you’re excited to see what ripples your work has created in the audience. Do it out of generosity, because you really want to help people dive deeper into the experience they’ve just had. Do it because something they say might spark an idea in you. And who knows where that idea might lead?


And please, please, don’t talk as if you despise your audiences.


+ Steve Hyland’s image is from his excellent blog reflecting on his experience of involvement in the national Circuit programme led by Tate and funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.


* I should have been forewarned, when an event with such a title blithely announced itself as being held in an inaccessible venue!


** There were some honourable exceptions


(1) One who enthusiastically described an instance where another company had, after the end of a performance, invited someone unconnected with them to ask questions of the audience about the show, turning the ‘ask the cast/ director’ model on its head. Some audience members left, but the ones who stayed ended up in a very rich, interesting conversation. The cast listened, but didn’t lead.


(2) The guy who described, in approving terms, coming across the concept of ‘relaxed’ performance at Devoted and Disgruntled. Such performances are put on for people ‘who, for whatever reason’ feel more comfortable reacting more loudly to the action’ eg because they have learning difficulties. But I wonder how many people in the room made the connection that relaxed performances have only evolved because some theatre people thought to ask some non-attending potential audiences what it was that kept them away and how they could be helped to also enjoy the theatre experience?


(3) Another woman who made an analogy with teaching – every teacher knows that encouraging pupils to reflect on what they have learned (‘evaluate’ their learning experience) takes that learning deeper and more long-lasting.


(4) The facilitator invited debate (which didn’t really develop) about the compact between a venue or performance company and the fan or loyal audience member. What is the trajectory from introduction, to trust of enrichment, to exploration of new, to feeling let down (Bored? Unchallenged? Loss of quality? Loss of feeling special?) to moving loyalty on to a different venue or company. And is this trajectory different in London than other locations? Something to return to.