Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Sch of Theatre, Perform & Cult Poli Stud


This resarch development project interrogates the value attribution of theatre audiences. The starting point is the phenomenological description of embodied experiences of individuals who attend the theatre, and the associational networks which influence them to attribute value (or not) to the event in question. Their specific responses to the performance will be combined with information about past theatre experiences and related associations (personal, public, imaginary, or historic) invoked in response to the performance. The impact of the experience will be re-assessed after time has elapsed to see if subjects retain valuations, change their perspectives, integrate their experience into social networks, and/or make use of it in different ways. We also tap memory by asking subjects about a performance they saw one year ago.
The project partners with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, and the Drum Theatre in Plymouth, identifying three productions to study for each of their 2013-2014 seasons in three genre categories. Audience members will be solicited to participate through the aegis of the theatres (on line and at the theatres). They will provide information to the research team before, right after, and three months after the production, and can also volunteer for follow-up interviews or creative workshops. The theatres will support this project through their websites, by promoting the opportunity to participate to their patrons, and by allowing us access to archives and press materials. The theatres will co-host a dissemination event at project's close.
The researchers will ask subjects about their direct experience of the theatre event, what it meant to them, how it made them feel, what other associations it triggered, and what value(s) they would assign to the experience. The purpose of these questions is to see how individuals absorb theatre experiences and translate them into other areas of their lives; how long and strong theatre stimuli last; how cognitive and affective registers process the experience over time.
We will be interacting with approximately 120 subjects (10 for each of the 2013-14 performances and 30 for the year-old performance), plus 45 subjects in long interviews, and 15-20 subjects in creative workshops. In addition to this research data, we will harvest data from social media through establishing running Twitter searches through a platform like Tweetdeck, a raft of Google Alerts to capture blog and comment-box mentions of our performances, and use Facebook's search facilities to capture interactions on the social network. These social media data will act as a kind of control group to offset the effect of having the targeted subjects' interest/attention in the performances heightened by being a part of the study.
The project is a collaboration between the University of Warwick, the British Theatre Consortium (BTC), and the theatres. BTC is a cooperative of theatre experts (including the PI and CIs) that has carried out previous research for Arts Council England on new theatre writing and co-sponsored a roundtable with the Royal Society of the Arts on Spectatorship to Engagement. BTC is currently running 'The Spirit of Theatre' with Manchester Metropolitan University and The Theatre Library, researching audience valuation and memory in relation to a current production of Mother Courage. This study can be seen as a pilot for the present bid.
The PI and one CI are senior theatre and performance scholars, each with expertise on contemporary British theatre and many publications, and the other CI is a creative writing scholar from MMU. The fourth member of the research team is the distinguished playwright David Edgar. The administrator, Jane Woddis, also holds a PhD in cultural policy studies and has collaborated on other BTC projects. All five are members of BTC.

Planned Impact

This CfP acknowledges that the topic of cultural value is important to the nation and critical for the arts where there has not been a consensus on any of the aspects of what constitutes value or how it is attributed. The funding climate has tightened the purse strings on many arts organisations, and the need for a framework within which to understand and assess cultural value has become critical for the health and continuation of a robust arts sector. Our proposal has direct impact on this situation by providing a mediating conceptual platform from which to assess arts experiences (mediating because it does not deny the need for economic and instrumental considerations but instead perceives them to be part of a larger processual set of relationships between the experience, the respondent, and the network of associations triggered.) The empirical research offered in the study will provide concrete case studies of how the research subjects phenomenologically experience and then subsequently respond to and process the theatre performances they attend. There are a number of beneficiaries of both the mediating conceptual framework and the specific empirical outcomes:

1. The theatres involved directly in the study, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, and the Plymouth Drum, conduct their own audience research which this study will enhance. All three theatres responded to the invitation to participate by noting that this new information will be welcome and valuable to them in understanding their patrons.
2. The larger theatre community, which will be targeted through dissemination at the one-day conference and the events held at the theatres, will also benefit--the theatres from gaining knowledge of their patrons and also of how their programming is transformed into cultural value; the audiences and patrons through better understanding how they process their experiences and why value is constructed in part through their own responses and activation of networks of associations.
3. Cultural policy analysts and governmental bodies who are making key funding recommendations and decisions will hopefully shift their thinking as a result of the outcomes of our research. Our previous relationships with RSA and ACE will be the conduits for sharing the final report.
4. Theatre studies and other arts researchers will build on our findings (see academic beneficiaries).

The BTC has run four sector-wide conferences and published research for Arts Council England, and is now working with the Theatre Managers Association on a statistical project as well. It is well positioned to serve as a conduit for the wide dissemination of our findings through its website, conference, and its own network of associations. We also can expect good press and media coverage, judging from the coverage of our ACE report 'Writ Large' (2009).


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Description We investigated how theatre spectators value the experience of attending performances, looking at empirical and qualitative indicators. Coming out of the data, we have discovered how people associate these experiences with their lives and the wider world. For most spectators, combinations of emotional, sensory, and intellectual stimuli register the impact of the theatre experience. Subjects valued liveness, the provoking of thought, and communal experiences as well as acting and other aspects of artistry. Memory is acute and sensory initially, tends to decrease and also become more conceptual as time passes. Subjects talk to a range of partners, family, and friends, often for a considerable time after the experience. Many spectators remember some performances from childhood. Interviews and workshops reveal how subjects process their experiences as an on-going part of individual lives, and those of their families and social circles, extending the experiences when prompted to creative imagining.
Exploitation Route Because of the relatively small size of our sample, most of our findings could be expanded by 'big' data collection, and the insights we gained could be extended. Here is our list of topics to develop. These all presuppose some good research collaborations among academic, policy, and creative sectors:

• The question of whether and how people change their minds over time with regard to valuation is interesting and should be worthwhile to all stakeholders (public policy, theatres, academics). Related longitudinal questions include confirming the findings of associational changes to self and world over time (or challenging them), and the long-term value of theatre experiences to spectators who attend theatre over a period of years.
• Investigating the arc of judgments of value and whether or not there is a change in the qualities invoked (as we have posited) from sensuous toward conceptual as time passes.
• The variables of education, age, gender, and past experiences of theatre will need further research with a big sample in order to be conclusive about whether and how these effect experience and value attribution.
• Gender, especially, is a rich category for further exploration. It seems from our data that women might associate in differing patterns to men. It also seems that women are often the ones who introduce theatre into their families, maintain social bonds with friends and family, and develop long-term experiences with theatre networks. On the other hand, it is intriguing that in our study men associated more often to their own lives than women while women associated more frequently to the larger world.
• How much interaction and stimulation after the performance enhances spectator valuation is particularly important for theatres as many are beginning to try to develop long-term relationships with spectators around the shows those patrons attend. While our research showed that post-show discussions were of high value only to some, it also indicates clearly that people value discussion and sociality and engage in it for some time after the stimulus of the performance has passed. It would be good to measure more definitively whether or not being worthy of discussion is a criterion of high value for spectators.
• Our intriguing findings concerning the meaning of 'entertainment' and its compatibility with 'food for thought' indicate a topic that needs more research and could be very valuable to policy makers as it focuses on some stereotypical and widely current ideas and questions them. Our findings show that these terms are not incompatible at all, and that in actuality people often refer to them together as valuable attributes. One additional aspect to this maybe the limitations of vocabulary and the habits of discourse that privilege certain words such as 'entertainment' when a more elaborate and nuanced complex of meanings are being trumped by the typical associations with triviality it frequently conjures up.
• Finally, a speculative project that follows up on the evidence of our interviews and workshops that people use theatre to make analogies to other aspects of life in such a way that knowledge accumulates and deepens, becoming an experiential 'data-bank' for life-long learning, is extremely appealing, although how to measure this would need to be carefully considered. Such a project would be responsive to one of our key findings: that, for many people, theatre is a lifelong commitment, from childhood experience as theatre-goers, via adolescent theatre practice in school plays, youth and amateur theatre and university study, through to adult theatre going which contributes to and is deepened by networks of personal and social relationships.

Added March 2, 2019: I just learned that a new book series will be published by Routledge on Audience Research edited by Kirsty Sedgman. While this is not a direct result of our project, our project contributed to the growing interest in our field in this research topic and I believe we indirectly contributed to this new development. It will stimulate further empirical research in our field.
Sectors Creative Economy

Description Unrestricted View: Young Vic, Royal Shakespeare Company, Theatre Royal, Plymouth--three events 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Reports to the audience base of the three partner theatres of the results of our project; audience interaction with three speakers from our project; we provided a power point lecture. Separate events, sponsored by the theatre on their premises and hosted by management.

Nothing direct--participants told theatre management they enjoyed being a part of the research project and wanted to have more similar activities
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014