Roar of the Crowd Conference Report

By David Edgar

7 June 2014

We seem somehow to have brought off four public events in three weeks. We reported back to the three theatres whose audiences we’ve surveyed over the last six months (see previous blogs) and then on Saturday we held a conference, titled The Roar of the Crowd, at which around 80 people assembled to discuss the issues raised by our investigation into how theatre spectators attribute value to the shows they see.

The opening keynote was given by Helen Freshwater, author of Theatre and Audience, and a pioneer in study of what audiences actually do. Beginning with a discussion of the Blue Man Group (who apparently “issue instruction on appropriate responses” to spectators at their high-octane performances) Helen discussed rthe historic suspicion of theatre audiences, from Plato via the Reformation to the 20th century, associating this suspicion with fear of the popular, the sexual and the mob. mob. She reminded us that Stanislavsky’s theatre pretended the audience didn’t exist.

The audience very much existed for the rest of the day. Our Jane Woddis, Dan Rebellato and Julie Wilkinson presented our current findings (outlined at the theatre events and in previous blogs). One finding that provoked considerable interest was that more men than women connected shows they’d seen with their own lives, more women than men with events in the outside world.

The first post-lunch panel set our findings in the context of other research. Eleonora Belfiore of the Warwick Commission on public valure argued that an “instrumentalist” approach to theatre was as old as the form itself; currently instrumentalism is being used essentially defensively, to protect the arts from cuts in subsidy. Anne Torreggiani of the Audience Agency confirmed that the major determinant of arts attendance remained education level (rather than class), which our research demonstrates) and that 20% of the population are highly engaged with the arts. Although only 3% are interested in experimental work, that can increase as audiences influence each other. It’s possible with good word of mouth for a show that appears initially to be off-puttingly experimental to move from the outer reaches of the fringe to the west end.

Rishi Coupland of the National Theatre talked about two recent develops which have affected and changed the NT audience: the opening of the Shed space and the hugely successful live (and increasingly unlive) streaming of NT shows to cinemas. The barriers to attendance include a fear of entrapment (with which many attenders had sympathy). Matthew Reason talked about his studies of children and audiences for dance, demonstrating that children in particular experienced a theatre form like puppetry on a dual track, both responding imaginatively to images but also understanding and appreciating how the magic is made.

The second panel assembled practitioners who challenge the traditional audience/performer relationship. Deborah Pearson of Forest Fringe showed clips of interactive events from a single audience member choreographing the movement of a woman in the street to an equally single person invited to walk holding hands with a succession of others. Deborah herself has “performed” a canoe ride with Australian conservative voters, trying to convince them to change their minds.

Director Ramin Gray explained the process of making David Greig’s The Events, based on the Andrei Breivik killings in Norway: the idea to base Grieg’s analogous story of a murderous attack on a community choir came out of his and Gray’s trip to Norway. Annette Mees of Coney described her process of building environments for audiences to experience and participate in constructed narratives (in the case of her upcoming show, the rebuilding of a country after a revolution).

Colin Nightingale explained the Punchdrunk process, referring both to their current immersive theatre piece in London and their success in New York. (“A lot of our shows are mask shows. Our mask is our theatre seat”). It was striking how Punchdrunk’s work provokes fan art which has nothing to do with the company. Finally, Tim Crouch talked about his series of plays about minor Shakespearian chareacters, from Cinna the Poet to Peaseblossom (the fairy), which seek to transfer authority to the audience by creating incomplete work which leaves the audience something to do.

The final session was a summation by Liz Tomlin, of Birmingham University. She noted the sobering fact that efforts by the Arts Council and arts companies to broaden disadvantaged, disabled and ethnic minority audiences in the late 00s had signally failed. She also pointed out that participant empowerment was not unproblematic: there was a difference between audiences being involved as consumers and being engaged as citizens.

In conclusion, Chris Megson of BTC underlined our excitement at the number of people we’ve interviewed and surveyed for whom theatre is a central, vital and inspiring element in their lives.