Tag Archives: unrestricted view

Unrestricted View: Young Vic

By the BTC

Last week we hosted the final of our ‘Unrestricted View’ report-back sessions on our Theatre Spectatorship project – this time at the Young Vic in London. As part of our research, we surveyed and interviewed audiences of three Young Vic shows: The Secret Agent, Happy Days and The Events so we were delighted to be back at the theatre. It was an enjoyable meeting and a good opportunity to share some of our provisional findings with members of the public. Alan Stacey (Executive Director at the Young Vic) and Stacy Coyne (Marketing and Digital Manager) were able to join us and it was useful to hear their responses to our presentation.

We focused some of commentary on audience feedback from the Young Vic. There’s some evidence that spectators at the Young Vic may be slightly more balanced in gender than the other theatres we sampled; they are also strikingly educated, with the majority of our self-selecting sample having a postgraduate qualification – though, of course, this may tell us more about the willingness of postgraduates to complete questionnaires! There are other mitigating factors which need to be factored in: Alan mentioned, quite rightly, that the audience demographic would have been very different if we’d looked at, say, the production of Feast (2013). These sorts of variables are an inevitable feature of audience research and they require us to be cautious in the claims we make about audience constituencies and profiles.

There was a fascinating discussion about how theatre audiences might be engaged more effectively in a long-term conversation about the shows they see. Stacy commented that our project encourages theatres to reflect on how they think of audiences before and after the show, and about how they might foster qualitative discussion with audience members over longer periods of time. The Young Vic has been energetic in engaging audiences in innovative ways across multiple media platforms: for example, they have made a series of films (‘YV Shorts’) to accompany their productions. These are available online to give people who can’t get a ticket an experience and they also foster debate around the show and enhance its topicality (see http://www.youngvic.org/YVshorts). These sorts of initiatives have the potential to transform the ways that spectators engage with productions – and each other.

We were asked a question about the connection between remembering, thinking and value attribution. Do audience members value a piece of theatre more if they have chance to discuss it? Our questionnaires, in encouraging audience reflection before, immediately after and two months after seeing a show, might in fact be doing a job that theatres might want to take on – that is, encouraging on-going thoughts about the theatre. One of our attendees suggested that audiences may want greater ownership of interpretation. The post-show discussion or ‘in conversation’ public platform are the conventional means of engaging an audience in dialogue about what they have experienced in the theatre. But perhaps this format is now too tired, too limited? What other strategies are possible so that reflections can be deepened, shared or sustained over longer periods of time?

All three ‘Unrestricted View’ events – in Stratford, Plymouth and London – have opened up inspiring conversations and insights. They have been very much part of the research process and will inform the completion of our Final Report. Thank you to all who attended these events.

Unrestricted View: Drum, Plymouth Theatre Royal

By the BTC

The Lab

At the second of our report-back events, David Miller (Plymouth’s Production and Technical Director) welcomed us and Janelle Reinelt opened the session, placing our work in the context of the cultural value debate and emphasising that this event was part of a work in progress; as well as contributing to the conversation this evening, attenders were encouraged to visit the website and contribute to the debate online.

Dan Rebellato outlined the story of our work, starting with Spirit of Theatre, and listed the theatres whose audiences we’d surveyed. He noted that – contrary to the idea that theatre audiences are ageing – the age spread in our survey was reasonably even. However, the Drum audience was much younger. This might account for the smaller number of people who’d completed a post-graduate degree (the number is much higher at the RSC, for example). Dan challenged the common, rather narrow and pejorative, view of the word “entertainment”: respondents define it to include characteristics we’d regard as less “mere”, like being thought-provoking. He went on to outline our main current findings, including the fact that audiences’ perception of the work becomes more cognitive over time. “There’s quite a long story to be told.”

Plymouth’s audience insight officer Ed Borlase confirmed that the company’s survey work had become much more qualitative over time.  The first questioner asked him if the theatre’s surveys influenced programming; he confirmed it did. Artistic Associate David Prescott confirmed that audience feedback was an important part of the theatre experience being offered by the company; every show has a post-show discussion. David questioned our decision to show spectators’ moving from a sensual to a cognitive response by a graphic including a descending arrow.

Wendy Haines reported on the interviews she’d conducted for the project. She was struck by how willing people were to talk about their theatre experience, sharing deep and sometimes intimate responses to the shows they’d seen. She was struck by how the Plymouth audience valued going to the theatre (other attenders commented on how far people drive to come to the theatre). Confirming our survey findings, Wendy had found a huge emphasis on the communal aspect of the experience. A lot of people who attended the Drum defined their theatre taste against that of the main house audience: “I don’t tend to go to musicals”. Attenders suggested it might have been interesting for us to survey audiences for musicals.

David Edgar talked about the role of workshops in the research process: encouraging people to write scenes based on the work they’d seen enabled them to articulate connections with their personal lives which it would be hard for them to express directly.

A questioner asked how audiences used the values they gained from theatre. Dan cited answers to our question about things that people were reminded of in their own life, but the questioner persisted: he was asking about real impact and outcomes. Janelle said that we didn’t want to pose leading questions, or go back down an instrumentalist road.

Another questioner raised the “entertainment” category, confirming our view that it’s a much wider category than academics tend to think: “Wolf Hall was entertaining, but you don’t half have to think”.

A final questioner made what he called a “fuzzy point”: the Romans subsidized bread and circuses to deflect the populace from rebellion – was theatre doing the same thing?

Some attenders raised the issue of the “Drum audience” and how it differed from the mainstream, main house audience. Dan challenged the idea that different spectators responded differently to different shows: the value that audiences placed on liveness, for example, went across the board.

Finally, the issue of seat prices was raised. We realised one question we hadn’t asked was “what did you pay for your ticket?”

Unrestricted View: Royal Shakespeare Company

By the BTC

Clore Learning Centre

This was the first of our ‘reporting-back’ events at the theatres who were partners in our research. The audience included a small number of survey respondents, several staff from the RSC, including Becky Loftus, Head of Audience Insight, who had very helpfully worked with us on developing our questionnaires; and a number of people (mostly from marketing departments) from other arts organisations in the West Midlands, including the Birmingham REP, Warwick Arts Centre and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

Becky Loftus opened the event by welcoming everyone. David Edgar began by putting our research in the context of the debate on cultural value, which had been given urgency by the need to justify arts funding in a time of austerity. He also said that we were presenting a work in progress, and that this event, and particularly the discussion, would contribute to the research process.

Jane Woddis then summarised the key points of our findings so far; and Julie Wilkinson led the section on The Spirit of Theatre project, which had acted as something of a pilot for Theatre Spectatorship & Value Attribution. She explained how Spirit of Theatre arose out of the concept of the theatre ghost, and how the website remains an active site of interaction and debate. The presentation started by setting our work in the context of, on the one hand, a shortage of qualitative audience research among many theatres, and on the other, a lack of concern with the audience among academics. The age and high level of education of RSC audiences was noted. In terms of what people value about the theatre experience, people tended to cite the immediate sensory experience at the time, but talk about the cognitive aspects later (particularly how the play related to their personal lives or the wider world). It’s also striking how important discussion of the play – with partners but predominantly with wider groups – was to people’s experience. The more people thought about the shows, the higher the value they placed on them.

After the presentation we asked Becky for her response. She countered the idea that theatres only do quantitative, demographic research: the RSC increasingly asks audiences about six “audience engagement elements” including variants of our categories of thinking, liveness and entertainment. These elements include “shared experience and atmosphere”, “fun and engagement” and “learning and challenge”. Audiences identify which of these elements was most important. Part of the definition of “learning and challenge” is work that is out of audiences’ comfort zone; people who identify this element as most important are insisting that being thought-provoking enhances the play (“learning and challenge” is given a higher value than fun and engagement). Becky made the point that the RSC’s 30-40% response rates to survey trawls was very high, and that respondents clearly enjoyed and wanted to talk about the experience of the shows, even when the survey was about something else (like the restaurant).

Other theatre representatives confirmed that their surveys were increasingly qualitative. Warwick Arts Centre divides its programme (across the board, not just theatre) into mainstream, classical and contemporary. The crossover between these sectors is very low, confirming the suspicion that audiences are often confined in siloes. Predictably, audiences for mainstream work say they want to be entertained, and those for contemporary work want work that provokes “deeper thinking”. However, as our findings point out, people’s definition of entertainment often embraces thought and stimulation, and is a wider category than implied by the adjective “mere”.

There was discussion about the representativeness of samples: it was pointed out that our survey probably exaggerated the number of older post-graduates, as they would be more likely to fill in the form. We had noted that the Hamlet audience covered a wider age and educational range than Wolf Hall: Becky pointed out that Hamlet was in the main house and had a much longer run; Wolf Hall was in the Swan and sold out immediately it went on sale, and thus largely to RSC members.

A questioner raised what he called the “diplomacy” of our categories; we didn’t seem to acknowledge that audiences went to the theatre partly for delinquent experiences: to enjoy violence, suffering and sexual arousal. This was connected with the idea that audiences like to be unsettled. Pricing was raised (by, we think, a survey respondent): the expense of theatre visits means that audiences are more choosy about what they go and see, and want to be assured they’ll have a good time. One of our interviewees said that he’d been going to theatre for 67 years and could only recall six or seven bad shows.

During the discussion, we chipped in points about our surveys. We pointed out that the drop-out rate across the three surveys was substantial, and higher for Wolf Hall than Hamlet. We also noted that the majority of Wolf Hall audiences had either read the book or prepped for the show by reading it. Overall, what was valued by audiences was often surprising: pathos is valued across a range of work. We were struck by the seriousness of people’s responses to theatre.