Not for the likes of me

When we introduce the ideas behind audience development, we say ‘imagine what it must be like for people coming to your artform for the first time’ – or better still ‘remember a time when you were fresh to an activity’.  The research project title ‘Not for the like of me’ gets to the heart of the emotional journey many people go through.

It’s quite hard for people working in the arts to imagine being a newcomer to the arts, but last weekend I had that experience for real, and what  an eye-opener it was!

Summer nephew visit #2 involved a 16-year-old football fanatic from rural Lancashire looking forward to his grown-up first trip to the capital. As my conversation about football (even in World Cup year) lasts about 1.5 minutes, I was mightily relieved to learn he has recently taken to poetry, by way of 2pac. I rushed around timeout.com looking for cultural events that might interest him, in my role of cultural ambassador for my provincial relations.

But it was me who got the greatest newcomer vibes.

The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company were performing free at the Southbank, with hip hop artist Akala, MC Marechal from Rio and THSC band. All names utterly unknown to me – my nephew had to give me a running commentary. It was the ‘Shakespeare’ that got me in: much more my sort of thing.

I went through the classic uncertainties that we warn clients to look out for: ‘Do I need to book? How early should I get there to get a place? Will I be bored? Will I look ridiculously out of place as a middle aged white ‘liberal-opinion’? How should I move? Do I really have to whoop and call out – will anyone mind if I don’t? Did anyone spot me frowning when they clapped in between lines of a sonnet?’

And I was grateful for the small familiarities that I could latch on to – it was in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer (having been rained off the terrace): ‘my space’. The stewards on the door didn’t look me up and down as if I had no business being there, but were helpfully directing everyone to the new location in exactly the same way. Some of the rapping, whether of Will S’s own words or the young people’s interpretations of certain plays, was delivered slow enough and with ample dramatic delivery for even my ear to understand. Akala linked the pieces with explanations of what the Hip Hop Shakespeare project was all about and what to listen out for in the next piece.

I came away with the evangelistic enthusiasm that we all hope our new audience members will feel: I had never expected to be so challenged, moved or to experience such a sense of revelation.

Of course, my nephew stayed much cooler throughout – even when getting autographs.

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