The Value of Amateur, Subsidised and Commercial Theatre for Tyneside's Audiences

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Central Sch of Speech and Drama
Department Name: Faculty

Abstract

This project aims draw a complete and systematic picture of the theatrical life of the city of Newcastle and the surrounding Tyneside region from the perspectives of the audience members who experience it. It will aim to encompass every piece of theatre that takes place in the area during the six-month period of study-professional, amateur and commercial. The project will collect data on who is attending which sort of theatre, what motivates spectators to attend, what experiences they have while there, and in what ways these experiences and values are different for amateur, commercial and subsidized theatre. The project uses a tested combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, including surveys, interviews, focus groups, and social media analysis to address these questions.

While a number of theatre scholars have written about extraordinary performances and audience experiences, it is far more challenging to collect complete data on the more typical examples of theatergoing which, while not traditionally attracting as much scholarly interest, are the daily bread keeping the theatre afloat as an art form and an industry.

By including a wide variety of theatrical forms and focusing on audience's experiences, this project will help contribute to a much more nuanced and useful understanding of the role that theatre can play in contemporary British society. The findings will be useful to theatre makers who wish to better serve their audiences, but they will also assist in advocacy for increased financial support for the arts and, in particular, to show how the function of subsided, professional theatre is not one that can be replaced by its amateur or commercial counterparts . The project will work with the Empty Space, a key collaborative hub in Newcastle, and former Arts Council England North East executive director Mark Robinson of the think tank Mission Models Money to ensure that the results of our investigation are made available in an accessible, clear and useful way to the Tyneside theatre community, policymakers and the general public.

This project draws its methods from the Project on European Theatre Systems (STEP), a group of theatre sociologists from seven European countries. STEP has developed methods and metrics to collect this data on theatre and audience experience, and has refined and tested them in a number of smaller European cities. Thus far, comprehensive data has been gathered on Groningen, the Netherlands; Aarhus, Denmark; Berne, Switzerland; Maribor, Slovenia; Tartu, Estonia; and Debrecen, Hungary. Both the Principal Investigator and the lead Research Assistant have experience working with STEP and its methods, which are based primarily on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Dutch theatre scholar Hans van Maanen. STEP has been devising, testing, and refining its theory and methods since 2005. Common techniques and measures will facilitate comparisons both between different sorts of theatre within Tyneside, and between Tyneside and its continental cousins. Such a comparison will clarify what is distinctive about British theatre culture-not just in terms of its aesthetics, but in terms of the function it serves for its audience and the larger society around it.

Planned Impact

This research aims to articulate the values theatre holds for its audiences and the functions it serves for contemporary society. While these are academic concerns, they hold a clear practical relevance. Theatre is one of the most subsidy-dependent art forms, and that subsidy is under constant threat-particularly in Newcastle, where the local council has recently threatened to cut off all arts funding as a measure of austerity. While the purpose of this project is not to advocate, it is a reasonable expectation that it will develop more nuanced, accurate and compelling arguments for continued support for theatre and the arts in general which arts advocates may find useful. Against the argument that commercial theatre is sufficient, or that theatre can function adequately as a solely amateur activity, this project will look to offer evidence that, in fact, the subsidized professional theatre creates a different sort of audience experience that cannot be replicated in an amateur or commercial setting.

Robust arts advocacy requires the ability to speak precisely and unflinchingly about what the arts do for their audiences, and how different sorts of arts serve different functions. Research like this has the potential to lead to a more useful discussion of the reasons for supporting the arts, rather than simply a defense of support that is already in place. The data collected here is focused on the particular experiences of local audiences; this specificity will help make the conversation between researchers and the public about this data easier, more concrete, and more useful.

But this case is not just a financial or political one. Many theatre artists and producers have a deep desire to know their audiences, and the expectations they bring with them, better. They would find it useful to have a clearer, more up-to-date understanding of the values that their audiences hope to take from the theatre and what experiences most clearly articulate them. In the long run, this research and the discussion it generates may also suggest ways for artists to make theatre that responds more directly to the desires and goals of their audience, whether by addressing or challenging them.

To make the impact of this work clearer and more useful for the Tyneside theatre community-as well as the Tyneside public generally-a pair of project partners with a great deal of experience studying the role of the arts in British society and building collaborations to develop it are involved. The first is the Empty Space (http://www.theemptyspace.org.uk/), a Newcastle-based collaborative hub for theatre, dance and the performing arts. They will host the research and help guide it with their strong relationships to the local theatre community and their understanding of its workings. The project will be more effective and relevant if it makes use of an existing network, which is what the Empty Space can provide. Second is the arts think tank Mission Models Money (MMM; www.missionmodelsmoney.org.uk), and one of its key associates, Mark Robinson, former Executive Director of Arts Council England, North East. Recognising that academic language is often difficult and off-putting to artists, policymakers, and other members of the public, the project will use Mr Robinson and MMM's expertise to help write a final public-facing report which is clear, accessible, and visually engaging, and that addresses issues of concern to Tyneside theatre artists, policy makers, and community members. The report will be made widely available including via the local councils' and MMM's own websites, and will be distributed to the project's contacts. The Empty Space will also facilitate a public 'open space' discussion event for the report's launch. This outreach will help ensure that the report begins a productive and data-grounded discussion on the audience experience of amateur, subsidized and commercial theatre in Tyneside, and its role in wider society.
 
Description Based on a large-scale survey of theatre and dance audiences in Newcastle and Tyneside and a series of focus groups, we have developed a better understanding of the values that draw audiences to these art forms: why they come, what they appreciate about these performances, and why these art forms are important to them. We have also discovered important similarities and differences between the values that different kinds of theatre hold for audiences-both between commercial, subsidised and amateur performance contexts, and between more comforting and challenging forms of performance. While many scholars have written about the values of the audience experience, they are rarely backed up by a significant data set. Our qualitative and quantitative data allow our conclusions to both challenge existing theoretical work in audience studies and offer a more precise and useful set of tools to contemporary British theatre and dance producers.

Our key findings include:
• Overall, there is a remarkable similarity to the theatregoing experience across the board. Whether in the subsidised, commercial or amateur sector, theatregoing holds broadly similar values for most audience members.
• Subject matter and the perception of quality are the two most important factors to attracting audience members. Audience members enjoy watching performers work, and the more skilled and strenuous that labour is, the more it is valued.
• Amateur theatre is able to hold its own with its commercial and subsidised cousins, but it appears to hold a slightly different attraction. Audiences identify more readily with amateur performers than professional ones, and watching the work of people 'just like them' is especially impressive and interesting. Amateur venues also attract a more loyal audience who attend more regularly and describe a sense of belonging and community with the theatre institution that is not the case for professional venues.
• Audiences were remarkably open-minded, and were happy to try new venues and forms of performance unfamiliar to them. Audiences were more interested in the value of a ticket than the price of it. They were willing to pay more, but them expected a higher-quality product.
• We were able to identify two clusters of factors that described what the audience valued in a performance. Neither could be easily mapped to the traditional distinction of 'intrinsic' and 'extrinsic' artistic function. The first described the audience's emotional, dramatic and aesthetic engagement with the performance, including that it was impressive, inspiring, and worth thinking about again. The second factor measured what might better be called 'fun': the sense that a performance was relaxing, unchallenging, undemanding, and so on. We were able to show that performances largely split into two groups. While the first factor seemed to be a goal of all performances, the second only seemed to be a goal of one of the two groups. This distinction was related to - but did not precisely follow - the distinction between subsidised and commercial performance. Amateur performances fell less distinctly into one category or the other.
Exploitation Route Yes. We hope that theatre and dance producers and others interested in audience development will be able to use our findings to more precisely understand what potential spectators value. This will make it easier to develop artistic and marketing plans that address - and, when appropriate, challenge - audience expectations. It will also help others in the culture and heritage sector who are wishing to better understand their audiences to develop more well-honed tools by which to capture and measure audience experience.

It was also quite striking in our research how similar the experiences of commercial, subsidised and amateur theatre were, despite the fact that the organizational structures that support them are so different. Our report suggests a number of ways in which all three models of production can learn from and cooperate with one another. We hope that these findings will encourage collaborations between amateurs and professionals, and we are in discussions with our Tyneside partners on a followup project to use this work to seed and develop these relationships.
Sectors Creative Economy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.thinkingpractice.co.uk/audiences-and-what-they-value/
 
Description While we hope that these findings will be used by amateur and professional producers, marketing professionals and cultural policy-makers, it is simply too soon to assess the project's full impact. We have, however, taken first steps that should encourage such impact in the months and years ahead. We produced a public-facing version of our final report, which was posted on the website of our collaborators at Thinking Practice and the Empty Space. We also hosted an open-space-style launch event to present and discuss our findings with the Tyneside public. This event was attended by representatives of the Arts Council England, who afterwards commented that it would be useful in their future work. It was also attended by a wide variety of theatre and dance producers from the area, who were eager to learn more about its results and use them for their own audience development work. The event also sparked discussions between the commercial, subsidised and amateur theatre sectors on Tyneside; many participants noted that these discussions were rare and useful, and saw the value of continuing them into the future. Our efforts to encourage such discussions and widen the impact of this research remain ongoing.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Creative Economy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

 
Title Tyneside audience survey data 
Description A database of 1615 survey results relating to the audience experience of theatregoing on Tyneside. Keyed to different productions, and includes demographic data. The format of the survey is designed to be compatible with similar datasets created in other ctiies around Europe by the Project on European Theatre Systems, with which this data was shared. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This data is contributing to the Project on European Theatre Systems' ongoing work on European theatre sociology, which will be published in 2015. 
 
Title Tyneside focus group transcripts 
Description Transcripts of nine focus groups conducted with audience members following theatre and dance performances on Tyneside, spring 2014. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This data will contribute to the forthcoming publication of the Project on European Theatre Systems, with which it has been shared. 
 
Description The Empty Space 
Organisation The Empty Space
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We offered funding to the Empty Space, and helped them develop their relationships with the Newcastle and Tyneside theatre community. This was particularly useful for the amateur sector, with which the organisation had few links. We also provided them with a data set and framework which will be helpful for their future work.
Collaborator Contribution The Empty Space hosted our researcher, and helped facilitate our work with their network of local contacts. As we are a London-based research institution, this was very useful.
Impact Cultural Value Project formal report Public-facing report. 'Measuring the value of theatre for Tyneside audiences,' Cultural Trends. Theatre Research International article to come soon.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Thinking Practice 
Organisation Thinking Practice
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We hired Thinking Practice for their expertise, and helped them develop it.
Collaborator Contribution Assistance in co-authoring the public-facing report and presenting it to the local community
Impact Public-facing report, co-authored with Thinking Practice and posted on their website.
Start Year 2014
 
Description Coverage in Arts Porfessional 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Our report received significant coverage in Arts Professional, a major news source for those working in the arts industry around Britain.

We have not yet received any, but several colleagues noted that they saw and were interested in the coverage.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/amateurs-match-eyes-audiences
 
Description Public-facing report 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The report has been downloaded approx. two dozen times.

We have heard anecdotally that the report has provoked new thinking about audience development.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.thinkingpractice.co.uk/audiences-and-what-they-value/
 
Description Results presentation and open-space discussion 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The presentation led to a vigorous set of discussions for two hours following amongst a variety of practitioners.

The Arts Council representative present said that the results would inform their future work. Practitioners present built new and useful connections between each other, and made plans for future collaboration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014