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?”