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.