Not the usual suspects: thoughts from the house venue network meeting

Catherine Love recaps on our fifth venue network meeting:


Audience development is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the arts. The aim of the latest house venue network meeting, however, was to look at specific ways of engaging new audiences and thinking beyond tried and tested approaches. Hence the title of the day: not the usual suspects. Theatres understandably spend a lot of time reaching out to audience segments with a proven interest, but what might be gained from extending that scope?

The day opened with a keynote speech by Joe Baden, head of the Open Book project at Goldsmiths University. Open Book, as Baden explained, works with people from offending and addiction backgrounds to encourage them to pursue an education that they might otherwise never have considered. One of the greatest barriers for these groups is often the intimidating nature of the spaces themselves, something which applies equally to theatre buildings (especially the imposing Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where the meeting took place). Sometimes just getting people over the threshold can be the hardest step.

Baden also bracingly suggested that it is not certain communities that are hard to reach, but that those who are doing the reaching might be the ones at fault. As he put it, if you have to do research in order to just talk to people then maybe you’re doing the wrong job. He also took powerful swipes at the idea of tolerance – “no one wants to be tolerated” – and the notion of empowerment, which he argued is itself disempowering.

The shift that Baden suggested we need is one in attitude as much as anything else. We need to respect rather than tolerate one another’s cultures and dismantle the hierarchy of who dictates good taste. On a more practical level, he made the point that cultural or educational experiences are difficult to engage with when you fail to see your own experience represented; perhaps it’s the theatre that needs to change as much as the audience development. Put simply, it is about making people feel at home.

After this passionate start to the day challenged some of the established approaches of the venues present, the afternoon breakout sessions offered an opportunity to think more specifically about engaging different groups. The first that I attended revolved around the example of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre company, who are currently touring the country with their repertoire of shows. In Oxford, as assistant director Ilinca Radulian and Oxford Playhouse’s Katy Snelling explained, they experimented with maintaining the initial secret and not releasing the names of the different shows in the season, with the aim of reaching a different  audience.

As emerged during the discussion, this was not an easy approach and not one that could be replicated on a regular basis, but it did offer a vital opportunity for the Oxford Playhouse to talk to its audiences about why they do and don’t attend. What they discovered was that a novel approach could bring in a certain audience, many of whom were younger and more interested in the sense of event than they were in traditional theatre, but it could equally alienate others. The use of secrecy was also revealing about how people see the contract between theatre and audience; although there was the option to click a button online to reveal the secret, many felt that this was not part of their role as audience members.

I then listened to Paul Hodson and Emily Coleman talk about the success of Hodson’s approach with past shows. With plays about Brighton and Hove Albion and Joe Strummer, plus an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Hodson managed to attract a big popular audience around these areas of interest, often bringing in people who had never been to the theatre before. In one particularly striking anecdote, Hodson recalled a football fan who had to walk around the theatre three times before summoning up the courage to step inside and buy a ticket.

What emerged really strongly from this discussion was the commitment of fans (sport, music and otherwise) and how theatre might harness this. Hodson’s play Brighton ‘Til I Die, for example, became more like a sporting event than a night at the theatre, with audience members waving flags and draping scarves over the balcony. This reminded me of performance duo Action Hero’s thoughts about the liveness and excitement of the sporting event and of theatre critic Matt Trueman’s suggestion that theatre needs to foster fans in the same way that football does. What might it look like if audiences were as emotionally invested in their local theatre as they are in their local football club?

The whole idea of the local also became an important aspect of the conversation. The opportunity presented to theatres by work like Hodson’s is the chance to connect with different local interest groups, many of whom might provide lasting links and open paths to new audiences. In the case of a show like Brighton ‘Til I Die, meanwhile, there was clear local appeal, making the show specific to its location and thus to potential audiences in the area. This might not seem like a feasible model for touring, but John Luther of South Street Arts Centre in Reading pointed to the example of Inspector Sands’ A High Street Odyssey, which is redeveloped for each location it visits.

The third of the breakout sessions was with Kirsty Hoyle and David Bellwood from training and consultancy organisation Include Arts, who advised venues on the inclusion of relaxed performances in their programme as another way of widening access. This is where support and knowledge sharing across the venue network really comes into play, as house will soon be offering the opportunity for theatres to gain and share training in this area. Surely the more venues discuss their experiences of increasing accessibility, the more the whole network has to gain.