Here at Audiences London we’ve been talking recently about what it means for an arts organisation to adopt an audience focus at its core.
As well as making sure you know and understand your audiences, communicate with them in ways appropriate to the different audience types, are clear and appropriate in your offer and welcoming when people come through the door … what about the nature of what you programme? How do programming decisions take account of what will appeal to your target audiences and draw them into a quality artistic journey with you?
Where are the examples of co-programming or artistic development in collaboration with audiences?
Well, here are two recent examples we know of, coincidentally both from Stratford in East London.
Stratford Circus; audience focused artist development
Acrojou has been in residence at Stratford Circus, through an award granted by City Circ. Their aim was to develop a first show for children, with Stratford Circus children’s theatre programme, The Circlets, acting as consultation group with insights into the kind of work these parents and children enjoy.
As part of its support, Stratford Circus introduced the company to local primary, Jenny Hammond School, and Acrojou spent a week getting to know the students. A key goal of the company was for the project to be responsive to its young audience rather than prescriptive: towards the end of the research, gifted and talented students aged 7 – 11 spent an afternoon with the company, who performed and tested three excerpts with the children.
At the start of the process, Acrojou admitted to some nerves – they had never worked with children before and they were opening themselves up to audience scrutiny and inputs so early in the development process. But the experience was wholly positive, with the children contributing a wealth of ideas and incredibly useful feedback. For Stratford Circus bringing these young artists to the children was rewarding and a great way for the venue to work with and further develop a relationship with one of its local schools and a young audience.
Acrojou say that their attitude to this kind of collaborative development is very positive and an approach that they would like to continue to use. ‘This project has allowed us not only to develop Waste Time, a new piece of work for an entirely new audience group, but also to really reinvent our creation process as a company. Having the children so involved, and involved so early in the process, was daunting but incredibly valuable, and something that we will continue to incorporate into our working process. It has shaped not only the content of the show but also the type of show that Waste Time will be; the immersive and collaborative factors emerging as key ideas in terms of what excited both us and the children.’
Theatre Royal Stratford East: Open Stage
Over at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Open Stage is asking the public what they would like to see at the venue, from which a group of 25 volunteer programmers will decide on the season programme for January to July 2012. The process is as likely to see brand new work as it is to stage revivals of much-loved shows – the entire process will be ‘up for grabs’: the programme pattern, the timings and the length of pieces.
To do this the theatre has begun to build a two-way dialogue with the community. Their reasons are many, but include an ambition to reach, connect and empower new audiences and the wider community; and a recognition that Open Stage extends Theatre Royal Stratford East’s founding philosophy (as the Joan Littlewood Theatre Workshop) of inspiring and being inspired by its audience, a ‘theatre of the people’.
There’s a sector-wide perspective too: “Despite progress the UK theatre ecology is still far from matching its demographic profile and remains elitist. Building on Arts Council England’s strategy “Great Art for Everyone” and political thinking about the empowerment and involvement of communities in the decisions that affect them, Open Stage wants to examine ideas about audiences, art and engagement.”
So far, TRSE with Audiences London’s help has piloted ways of holding these wider conversations – through creating partnerships, collecting first-hand viewpoints from people passing the venues – over half of whom had not been to TRSE before – and testing out with them the kind of questions that will really illuminate what it is to be a theatre that is locally responsive to its audience. The full ‘mass communication’ will start in late January.
If you have other examples of audience involvement in artistic direction – whatever the art form – that you’d like to shout about, do let us know.