“Putting the audience first”: a comprehensive response to the CSR

The waiting is over. The CSR announcements have ended the months of speculation and uncertainty, and the nation is breathing deeply once again, whether with a sigh of relief or a bellow of protest. Inevitably it will take some time for the impacts and implications of last Wednesday’s announcements to become clear. While we take time over the coming days and weeks to digest the news and assess what it means for our organisations and for the sector, and to plan accordingly, it has never seemed more important to factor in that other – and integral – part of the equation: our audiences. Written last month, in anticipation of last Wednesday’s CSR announcements and acknowledging that its inevitable cuts must mean that “radical change will come”, Sir Nicholas Kenyon’s article in The Independent makes a powerful case for a central guiding principle in our work: putting the audience first. For many of the organisations we work with, that principle is already key to their success – and it’s pertinent that Kenyon’s article highlights the Barbican’s two-way partnership Theatre Royal Stratford East as one of the key mechanisms in enlivening their offer, meeting and developing the needs of audiences across London and beyond.

We recently ran a workshop at TRSE (as part of our Reach programme for local authority arts officers) and heard from its Artistic Director Kerry Michael about how the theatre builds relationships with its audiences and communities. Central to his approach is the concept of ‘casting the audience’ – that is, considering the role it plays in any piece of work on the stage (and our infectiously enjoyable visit to that evening’s performance of Five Guys Names Moe confirmed the impact of that approach). TRSE is making this ethos manifest in its Open Stage programme (“this stage = your stage = open stage”), which will see the theatre programmed by the general public for six months in 2012. It’s a bold and ambitious project, and one which demands both a great deal of time and sensitivity, but based on the principle of mutual respect between audiences and the arts organisations that serve them.

Sir Nick Kenyon reiterated his message last week in a panel discussion with Ed Vaizey, Ben Bradshaw and Dave Moutrey (Director of Cornerhouse in Manchester) – you can watch an excerpt from the BBC’s Review Show here. It’s clear from the interview, and from his article, that partnerships are a vital means of delivering meaningful, quality arts experiences in straitened circumstances (see Charlotte Higgins’ article in the Guardian for more on how the National Theatre is enabling cost saving for the sector by opening up its back office services to other theatres); and beyond the obvious economies of scale, there are vast gains to be made from shared learning, openness and exchange.  These are the opportunities as well as the challenges that face the sector and its audiences in times to come – it will take sensitivity, creativity and, more prosaically, a willingness to listen to audiences, look at audience behaviour and interrogate what that really means for our organisations and for the arts in Britain in the second decade of the 21st Century. But ‘cuts’ isn’t the only c-word in the arts vocabulary at the moment: cooperation, collaboration and creativity are the core of our response.

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