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Who Are Our Audiences and How Can We Engage with Them Better?

Yesterday I spent an afternoon at Canada Water Culture Space in brilliant company: a room full of theatre marketers, critics, writers, artists and even audiences themselves - all wanting to talk about how to engage better with audiences and also with each other.

The event was courtesy of Dialogue leaders Jake Orr and Maddy Costa, and Amber Massie-Blomfield, Executive Director of Camden People's Theatre.

I'm not going to attempt to draw any coherent conclusions from what we talked about. There was so much discussed and from completely different perspectives, which felt like a real rare opportunity.

I might delve deeper into specific issues another time but for now, these are pretty much my notes. Just little fragments of interesting things which could lead somewhere. As we talked about, each venue and each artist will have different objectives when it comes to engagement: it's not one size fits all.

I'm sure the organisers themselves will get something up, which will be much better articulated, but I thought it might be helpful to share these, even as a long, rambley, and very note-based post. So here goes...

We kicked off with a brief talk from The Guardian's Lyn Gardner coming at the discussion from a press perspective.

She shared her thoughts on the current state of relationships between critics and venues/artists, that it's not very grown up and a bit of a with-or-against situation.

There was a sense of frustration at the idea from venues that it'd be the critic's job to help sell tickets - that without four or five star reviews their show will flounder. That's not the responsibility of the critic. From this, the issue of star ratings came up and how problematic and simplistic they can be.

Then, crucially - how do you tackle the idea of people thinking theatre is "not for me".

We discussed:

Social media & online platforms for discussion
  • Twitter/blogs and the collation of these via Storify to give a voice to the audience: more diverse.
  • Social media being social, not just a broadcasting medium. Interesting content, questions and knowing your voice.
  • Taking Q&As online, not just post-show: engage people beyond those who already know the show or the area. Link up with publications to host.
  • Example of Forced Entertainment's Quizoola24 with new people clicking on as it took over Twitter. People shared quotes and discussed and became part of the event.
Ways to look at reviews & star ratings
  • The Rotten Tomatoes style of giving an average out of five from all reviews.
  • Word Bubbles to pick up common words/phrasing from reviews and social media.
  • Exeunt having collaboratively written and creative reviews.
  • Stars are difficult to pin down but a concise indicator for audience.
  • Economic impact of star ratings, particularly on London venues and smaller companies.
Encouraging new audiences
  • Press using plus ones to take people who wouldn't ordinarily attend, or to different types of theatre. How to encourage this behaviour outside of press.
  • Issue based theatre providing marketing and post-show discussion (in venue and online) opportunities, as well as different press angles.
    ie Finding Joy and NHS/dementia charities: a way into mask and theatre generally.
  • Theatre as a destination and as a night out. Show as after thought. Takes pressure off venue. A sense of trust in programming/willing to take a risk.
  • Theme nights ie Soho's twenties night with fashion bloggers.
  • Comps/dynamic pricing to encourage attending in beginning of run, to try something new.
  • Who is the man on the street? What does he want?
  • Company's responses to critics: conversation is good.
  • Blogger and theatre relationships: only the big bloggers? Newspapers writing for everyone, bloggers writing for arts elite? 
  • A relationship beyond press night invite/reception. Following up ideas, and keeping a show interesting.

We then had Stewart Pringle, Artistic Director at the Old Red Lion Theatre, to talk us through forward thinking, using Caroline Horton's Islands as a springboard. How much is revealed to the audience pre-show? How much is helpful?

There is a common perception that new writing, new work in general, should "speak for itself" - is this fair? The idea of other voices available at point of purchase beyond marketing copy, and curated by the artists themselves. Then following this with interesting and informative freesheets/programmes.

We discussed:

Additional content
  • Feeling involved in the theatrical journey can lead to a sense of personal investment in, and engagement with, the production. This could be via rehearsal videos, blogs, work-in-progress/open rehearsals, etc.
  • Education packs are emailed to schools, but what about the rest of the audience?
  • Additional information not as a paid for luxury or a one-off preview piece but as an essential offer (then up to audience to decide). Helping new audiences feel comfortable.
  • Targeted routes for content, not just social media.
  • Brochures that are also magazines with editorial content. Or at least links to extra content.
  • Linking up different mediums. More interesting content in emails and print: not just for social media or blogs.
Creativity & making the most of limited funds
  • Same level of creative thinking to marketing a programmed work as to a produced piece. 
  • Thinking beyond limited budgets: what can you do that's exciting and linked to the show, and maybe even free?
  • Guerilla marketing ie Northern Stage's 1984: reading the book in shop windows.
  • Old Red Lion Theatre running photography exhibitions alongside show - thematic or specific to production. Small, simple, old-fashioned but makes it an experience, plus an interesting press angle.
  • Dynamic websites: how does it open to a new booker? A regular booker? A genre-specific booker? Can certain people unlock extra content?
  • Training smaller theatre companies to upskill with their marketing/press.
  • Theatre trailers developing: what you'll get/themes/mood of piece. 
  • In cinema, people enjoy pre-film trailers as part of their overall experience. Directly affects their booking. What can we learn from this?
  • Are trailers newsworthy? Maybe only if provocative. 
  • RSC trailer release --> increase in sales.
PR firms & press nights
  • The expense and effectiveness of PR firms. Sometimes myth that you're buying the benefit of personal contacts. Lyn wouldn't necessarily be persuaded any more so than by press release first coming through.
  • Presence of Artistic Director at press nights. A chance for a rich exchange.

We finished with Amber, Executive Director of Camden People's Theatre and Head of Communications at The Albany, talking through her experiences from both venues. 

She discussed focuses on supporting new artists, and the community too - with examples such as homeless groups using a culture space. There's no naive assumptions they will go on to be bookers, but just a genuine, alternative way of engaging in the arts.

Helpfully, she asserted that you can't be all things to all people. For example, visiting a venue on one night and seeing a not very diverse audience and presuming there's no thought/strategy - it's not realistic.

It's about specific schemes, specific shows and venues - what are they looking and planning to achieve? Then it's also about clarity around this and transparency as to what you're doing.

We discussed:
  • Journalism on the business of theatres - this is lacking, but The Stage as good example.
  • Data and accountability: for small organisations as well as large.
  • The sharing of statistics and certain venues reluctance to share. The use of Freedom Of Information where applicable and if this would lead to conflict (it shouldn't).
  • Purple Seven reports being shared, but then these don't tell the whole story: what is the audience's behaviour across other venues? (Particularly with London) How else can we find out about our audiences?
  • Artists' fear around sharing of their process and business.
  • How we keep our cards close to our chests, and how we could be better with open-ness about successes and failures, in general but relating to audience development projects to help each other. Culture Hive as one way of sharing.

So, a lot to think about! As I say, these were just my (limited) notes from what was said, but perhaps helpful anyhow, if only to prompt further ideas.

Hopefully I'll get to another of these - it was so nice to share frustrations and potential ways forward, with such a wide range of people.

Find out about Dialogue here.


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