Pick it up and pass it on

By Maddy Costa

There must be a part of my brain that refuses to believe that New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, as a distinct research project with a designated funding period, has almost reached the end of its three-year lifespan, because the list of posts I want to write for this blog is getting longer, not shorter, and rather than write them I procrastinate, spinning out the time before I declare myself done. But in a sense, this work will never be done: it’s an ongoing challenge, because it’s not just about building new audiences but maintaining relationships, making the conversation with audiences dig deeper and feel richer. That isn’t the work of three years: it’s the vocation of a lifetime.

I’m writing this on the train home from a conference-meets-celebration marking the end of the three years, and while there are at least 18 things I want to write about it, for now I want to focus on a brief speech delivered during the afternoon discussion session by Sarah Frankcom, artistic director at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Gratifyingly, Sarah began by saying that it was early posts on this blog that triggered a huge conversation at the Royal Exchange about the different ways in which the building and its people might engage with its audience, leading directly to its own 18-month research project, You, the Audience. What I love about You, the Audience so far – and it’s still within the first few months of existence – is how it has picked up the challenge of NTiYN and pushed it forwards, creating exciting new blueprints for relationship-building.

For instance, rather than employ a firm of audience analysts to create and assess questionnaires, they invited an artist – Chris Thorpe – to spend a day in the building asking audiences: “What is this theatre for?” The results, says Frankcom, were translated into a text and performance which is now forming the basis of a bigger piece of work – and, crucially, “told us more than a million marketing surveys ever could”.

Another beautiful development – I so love and envy this as an idea – is that the Royal Exchange now have a monthly Theatre Cafe, at which staff and audiences meet for tea and a chat about something relevant to the life of the building or the industry at large. So far, subjects have included political theatre, the programming of reimagined classics, and whether all performances should be relaxed. It reminds me of the central tenet of my own organisation, Dialogue: that there should be egalitarian spaces in which people who make theatre and people who watch it can share their thoughts and be heard.

For her presentation at the NTiYN event, Frankcom picked out five key statements that audience members have made during these various conversations: statements that, she suggested, “might at first glance seem unsurprising or even superficial, but contain real provocations for us as a theatre and an industry”. I’m going to print them verbatim, as she expressed them with a clarity and charge that I’m not going to better, and follow each with a brief response:

We want jacket potatoes.
What does a theatre restaurant menu say about the values of the organisation? What does it communicate about who the theatre thinks it’s there for? What is it about the ubiquitous jacket potato? The most democratic of meals – classy and classless – spanning the generations – entirely modern but timeless.

* I’ve written about this before on this blog, specifically in relation to gourmet biscuits that individually cost as much as a packet of chocolate digestives, and Conrad Murray from Beats & Elements talked about the same issue in an interview with the Guardian. It’s really not hard for theatres to demonstrate more social empathy, and it amazes me how this unconscious class snobbery persists.

I want a good night out (but I’m not stupid).
How do we navigate the path between entertainment and high art? How do we avoid patronising our audience without making them feel shut out – of an exclusive “club”, an in-joke? Can a good night out be full of challenge and the unexpected?

* To me, the answer to this is conversation: in advance, changing the way the show is marketed, questioning what words are used in the copy, checking what kind of assumptions those words communicate; and afterwards, opening up spaces in which audiences can reflect on what they’ve seen without fear of being judged.

You want to be part of something live. You want to connect.
In our world of virtual reality and increasing social isolation, theatre is more important than ever. How do we get better at communicating the message that theatre is about community: it’s a communal, live, shared event and this is why it matters?

* One idea that emerged at the NTiYN event was to do with a redistribution of marketing funds: far few flyers and blanket emails, much more personal approach and one-on-one or small group conversation. Yes, it’s more time-consuming – but it creates a vital sense of connection, even before people walk in the doors.

I want people like me on stage.
This is the audience making the creative case for diversity, recognising that a vibrant, relevant theatre represents in every way the community that it serves. Audiences clearly want to see themselves and their city reflected on stage while at the same time being transported to other worlds. Many of them also want to be on stage, not necessarily to become professionals but because they want the experience of being on the inside. How do we get better at ensuring diverse audiences are genuine collaborators at every stage of theatre-making?

* Doing research for an essay tracing historical precedents to NTiYN, I spoke to and heard of several BAME companies doing this as a matter of course: making work in communication with communities, and reflecting their stories on stage. The Theatre Clubs that I run started life at the Young Vic, where every main house show has a parallel production created by people from the local community. The models are out there – if only theatres would apply them.

Theatre is not ( ) for posh people.
The young person who wrote this, as part of our You, the Audience programme, was making a banner. They accidentally missed out the word “just”, but we agreed perhaps it didn’t matter. Despite all the work we have been doing in recent years, we still can’t underestimate the extent to which theatre – and perhaps [the big, shiny Royal Exchange] in particular – is still associated with privilege. We have to keep saying and demonstrating in everything we do: everyone is entitled to theatre – it belongs to you, the audience.

*I had a really interesting conversation, earlier in this project, on the subject of ticket prices. Too expensive and people won’t come because it will be out of their price range; too cheap and they won’t come because they won’t feel any confidence in the quality of the work. The sheen of privilege surrounding theatre comes in no small part from a more general tendency in our society to equate money and value: the same tendency that drives the economic argument for the value of art/theatre. This is such a big social struggle, and it won’t be solved all at once, but with patience, small conversations, projects like NTiYN and You, the Audience, that set out to talk and really listen.

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