Who Are Our Audiences and How Can We Engage With Them Better?

This discussion took place on 31 January 2015, at Canada Water Cultural Space, London.

A discussion designed for people who write about theatre – critics, bloggers, fans – and people who work in communications, marketing and PR, to find out more about each others’ motivations, frustrations and ambitions, and ask how we can work together better without losing what makes our relationships with audiences distinct.

Hosted by Dialogue and Amber Massie-Blomfield (head of communications at the Albany/executive director Camden People’s Theatre), with invited speakers Lyn Gardner (the Guardian) and Stewart Pringle (critic, playwright, artistic director of the Old Red Lion, London).

We began with everyone present sitting in a big circle, roughly introducing themselves to establish their relationship within the spectrum of communications: primarily criticism, primarily venue-based, primarily marketing. Each session lasted roughly an hour, and was introduced by an individual speaker, who posed a set of questions, challenges or ideas to debate. Each time, the big group split into three smaller groups for focused discussion, then reconvened to share the thoughts that had emerged.

Session 1: a critic’s perspective, hosted by Lyn Gardner
Lyn began by pointing out that in the past critics and artists/venues inhabited two separate camps, and although that’s changed, a residue persists, particularly when a critic dislikes something, and the relationship stops being adult. She talked about the role and responsibility critics have in developing the idea that theatre is an exclusive club: this is a sign of critics not talking to audiences in the right way. She argued that it’s not a critic’s job to sell tickets, but that critics can work with venues to help audiences find out more about artists and their work. She added that it’s important that critics and venues work together in a way that isn’t advertorial, but that illuminates how work is made, to the critic’s benefit, and everyone else’s.

Lyn’s questions:
How can the critic-venue/artist relationship be more grown-up?
Critics hate stars. Venues hate stars. But star ratings are here to stay. So how can we use them better?
In Stockton, Annabel Turpin invites audiences to a skype session with an artist performing at the venue the following week. What are the alternative forms of communication critics, artists and venues can use to reach audiences?

Discussion summary:

People in venues don’t feel they can be truthful: they’re employed to talk a show up, whatever they think of it.
Complex communications are good, and that can involve star ratings: for instance, if a show attracts a range of responses, the audience can be presented with the range and invited to decide for themselves.
Some audiences love star ratings! They can be understood by everyone
There’s an excitement for audiences in hearing artists tell critics, “You got my show wrong.” Conversation is positive.
Venues misunderstand the “social” bit of social media: they use it to broadcast instead of facilitating discussion. Instead of not engaging with critics after press night, social media could be used for sustained debate.
Critics should use their plus-ones better, bringing along people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre.

Further questions:
Can critics contribute to artist development?
Is word-of-mouth on social media more effective than reviews for boosting salves?
How can more theatre audiences be encouraged to take a punt on unknown artists/work, the way comedy audiences do?
Could there be an online aggregate of theatre conversations, similar to Rotten Tomatoes (film) and MetaCritic (music)?

We need statistics:
How many people book after reading reviews?
How many people book after reading a feature?
How many people engage with theatre blogs?

We’re interested in introducing:
Theatre trailers that audiences can watch in venue foyers.
Pay what you decide schemes.
Critics and artists/makers having live conversations online.
More audience-driven conversations emerging out of shows.

Session 2: a venue perspective, hosted by Stewart Pringle
Stewart began by asking what kind of information or context is offered to audiences when they attend the theatre: at present, there might be a playtext to buy, a freesheet, a programme. But how much of this is provided around new plays? He noted that there is a general expectation in the UK that the work should “speak for itself”, and contrasted this with the attitude in other European countries, notably Germany, where there is an expectation that the audience will read a certain amount of background to new work before watching it. He wondered why so much of the content around work has to ape commercials, and why audiences so rarely hear from artists without the mediation of the venue or its PR reps.

Stewart’s questions:
What (else) could be provided to audiences for new work? Would a reading list be a barrier or make audiences feel more comfortable?
How can other voices be brought into the discussion that gives context around new work? Could those other voices be embedded critics? Artists not involved in making the show?
Could these primers solve the problem of contemporary theatre being seen as an unwelcoming club?

Discussion summary:
Spoiler alert! It’s important that each audience member is able to access information at the point they decide: some people don’t want to know anything about what they’re going to see.
Programmes that just contain marketing copy aren’t enticing.
Reading lists could be alienating.
A small venue could emulate the information-packed programmes of the National Theatre by spending £80 less on flyers and putting that money instead towards a critic writing programme material.
Audiences could be invited to attend rehearsals, and discussion would open out from that.
The dramaturg is the perspective of the audience in the rehearsal space.
Theatre doesn’t use what it’s best at – ie human interaction – very well.
Ideas for surreptitious or guerilla marketing: freesheets handed out at stations, actors reading texts in bookshops.
In Alton Towers, when you queue to go on a ride, it’s beside TV screens talking up the ride: where’s theatre’s equivalent? Why isn’t there more information or anything to look at available in the theatre bar? Stewart is planning to install exhibitions related to the theatre work in a small annex space at the Old Red Lion, for audiences to look at as they wait to take their seats.
We love the Royal Court Big Ideas strand.
Bad reviews require theatres to be creative in their marketing – but why not use that creativity as a matter of course?
There are pros and cons to trailers, depending on whether they aim to represent what you’re going to see or capture the themes and mood of the work. Trailers should be more like music videos.
Lots of money is wasted by small companies paying PR agencies, especially considering that it’s rare that a critic like Lyn will be persuaded by a PR to write about a show.
In-house PR is preferable, but that’s often a junior role in an organisation.
The two-way symmetrical model – by which stakeholders (audiences) are reflected back into the organisation – can’t happen if the PR is too junior.
When it’s not just the PR but the artistic director who attends press nights, the potential is opened up for a rich exchange.

Further questions:
Is the additional information about the process behind the work, or about the content on stage?
How much of this is enabling, and how much gets in the way of people thinking for themselves?
At the point of receiving a ticket email, could people also be sent an interview with the artists?
Could theatre engage with local businesses better?
Are reviews in national press as valuable as they’re perceived to be?

We’re interested in seeing:
An equivalent to the education package routinely provided to school audiences, for all audiences.
Better use of programmes, making space for artists to talk about the things/people that inspire their work.
More companies investing in grassroots communications, rather than official marketing.
Dynamic websites, that offer different content to people depending on whether or not they’ve been to the theatre before.
More communications based on the themes of the work, which would diversify the journalists/press targeted.
More encouragement of feeling confused: there’s no right or wrong interpretation, and it’s fine not to “understand” a show.

Session 3: a communications perspective, led by Amber Massie-Blomfield
Key to Amber’s session was a question: to what extent do critics acknowledge the different circumstances of different venues? She works in two: the Albany is home to 26 community organisations, runs two libraries, has a club for over-60s and sells tickets for £1 in the market outside its doors. Its audience reflects its local community. Camden People’s Theatre sits in a different place in the arts ecology: should its outreach work reflect that, or replicate the models used at the Albany? Amber argued the former: CPT should focus on extending its offer to emerging artists, particularly to artists from different ethnic backgrounds, and provoke young artists to think about who they want their audiences to be, and how working with different audiences might affect their practice. She thinks every venue trying to be all things to all people is impractical. She wants to see as much value placed on working with community groups as getting on stage at the Royal Court.

Amber’s questions:
How can individual venues build discrete engagements models that contribute to the diversity of the whole arts ecology?
How can criticism respond to and recognise the particular audience engagement aims of individual organisations?
How can criticism reflect more diverse audiences and reach more diverse people?

Summary of discussion:
Is the problem a lack of engagement on the part of journalists, or a lack of available information about the objectives of venues and companies?
Most people writing about theatre are writing about a product, because that’s what has value. The trouble with this is that it devalues local work, children’s work, etc.
There’s a lot of suspicion around embedded criticism: where do critical voices sit within it? The advantage of embedded criticism is that the trust fostered between critic and individuals within an organisation means those people feel able to be honest about the problems in their working practice, to talk on the record, and to allow the criticism to begin to shift the ways in which they work.

We’re interested in seeing:
More robust journalism about the business of theatre, and more holding organisations to account.
Less protectiveness within venues and organisations around data.
More accurate audience research.
More people talking on the record about the problems within the theatre industry.
More sharing of good and bad practice: organisations not just talking about what they’re trying to do, but talking more about the effects.

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