Open dialogue

Colchester 24.4.13 Theatre Arts Society and Frequency Theatre ViTW Reception 2 (2)

Originally written for The Stage.

The post-show discussion does not have the best of reputations. What should be an opportunity to share thoughts and gain artistic insights often becomes a stilted Q&A, a one-sided stream of anecdotes, or an unspoken contest to see who can ask the most intelligent question. But what about a post-show discussion for people who hate post-show discussions?

One of those people – by her own admission – is Lily Einhorn, project manager of the Young Vic’s Two Boroughs community engagement scheme. The project offers free tickets to residents of the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, many of whom Einhorn noticed were attending the theatre on their own. Recognising the lack of opportunity these theatregoers might have to discuss the work they were seeing, and acknowledging that the usual post-show format might alienate or intimidate them, Einhorn set about creating an alternative.

The Two Boroughs Theatre Club is modelled on the book club format: rather than being plunged straight into discussion immediately following a show, recipients of Two Boroughs free tickets are invited back after they have all had a chance to watch and reflect on a production. And just as a book club would never dream of inviting the author, Einhorn is firm that no members of the artistic team should be present for the discussion facilitated by the Theatre Club.

“I thought it would be really nice to have a group where the creative team are strictly not allowed,” Einhorn explains, “because I wanted it to be a comfortable atmosphere where people felt like they could say anything they wanted without fear of offending anyone, but also without fear of feeling like they’re stupid.” She continues, “it’s about unlocking something in them and saying: ‘your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s opinions’”.

Einhorn’s brainchild has been run in partnership with Guardian writer and Dialogue co-creator Maddy Costa, who has similar reservations about the traditional post-show format. “We all kind of hate the post-show discussion where everyone’s trying to ask the most interesting question,” she says. “So Lily and I both agreed that we don’t even go to those things; what we wanted to create was something different.” Their Theatre Club is designed to be as welcoming as possible, doing away with the hierarchies that usually characterise post-show events and creating a space that allows for relaxed, open discussion. The response has been enthusiastic, prompting Costa to try it out at other theatres, both through Dialogue and in association with theatre producers Fuel.

Einhorn and Costa are not the only ones seeking alternative models to the post-show Q&A. Camden People’s Theatre, for instance, has created a format it calls Talk Show Club, in which discussion is led by another theatre-maker who has not been involved with the show in question. China Plate, meanwhile, has adapted the post-show events surrounding its latest tour of Mess to suit the specific needs of both production and audience. Caroline Horton’s show is based on her own experiences of anorexia, opening up numerous issues around eating disorders. In recognition of this, China Plate are currently touring the show in association with the charity BEAT, taking it into schools and colleges as well as theatres and running a tailored series of discussions and workshops designed with psychiatrists from Kings College Hospital.

While numerous practitioners are currently experimenting with different formats, the idea of a model that eschews the post-show set-up of questions and answers is not entirely new. The National Theatre’s Platforms programme, which has been running almost as long as the theatre itself, is decidedly not post-show. Instead, the building runs regular events in the slot before its evening shows, ranging from straightforward discussions about the productions in the current repertoire to conversations that address the programme more obliquely. In the past, for example, Platforms have hosted numerous comedians and politicians, as well as a memorable encounter between atheist writer Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“It isn’t about being immediately reactive, audience wise, to what you’ve just seen,” says Platforms programmer Angus MacKechnie. “It’s either about making a choice to learn more about what you have seen on a previous occasion or coming to prepare yourself in advance of seeing it, usually on that night.” As a result, MacKechnie suggests that “it’s a different kind of commitment from audiences and we get a different kind of relationship with the audiences”. Because of the absence of an educational focus, MacKechnie explains that these events also offer audience members the opportunity to ask questions that they might not normally voice.

The desire to make critical conversations around theatre more inclusive and accessible is a feature that many of these initiatives share. The Theatre Club discussions might be guided by Costa, but the principle is that everyone in the room is equal and free to share their thoughts. “I am not the person with all the answers,” Costa makes clear, “I go in with as many questions as anyone else.” In line with this approach, Fuel’s co-directors Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell make it clear that the Theatre Club events represent “one of the key ways that we are building new audiences and making our work more accessible”. Lorna Rees, one of Fuel’s local engagement specialists and a regular organiser of post-show events, puts her attitude simply: “for me there are no ‘silly questions’”.

Crucially, all of these events are about contact and conversation. MacKechnie insists that at the National Theatre “we don’t just drop the curtain and that’s it, you haven’t got any more contact with us”, while for Einhorn the Two Boroughs Theatre Club is about “prolonging and enriching” the theatregoing experiences of its participants. The conversation itself, meanwhile, is one in which exclusive, specialist vocabulary is exchanged for straightforward, honest expression. For Costa, it all comes down to a simple but vital distinction: “Theatre Club is a place where we don’t ‘speak’ theatre, we talk about theatre, and those are two very, very different things”.

Conversation Starters

  • Maddy Costa and Fuel have found that offering refreshments instantly shifts the mood of a post-show event, transforming it into a welcoming social context. As Kate McGrath and Louise Blackwell put it, “you don’t have to spend a lot on hospitality, but you do have to be hospitable”.
  • It can also help to move the discussion out of the theatre space. While the National Theatre’s Platforms have successfully used the stage, Lorna Rees suggests that sometimes the auditorium “can be quite intimidating and not conducive to discussion”.
  • Involving the audience does not have to be difficult or complicated. Costa explains, “I always start by just getting a quick show of hands, did you like it, did you not like it, something very simple like that”.
  • Angus MacKechnie recommends experimenting with the format and fitting it to the context of discussion. “In terms of format, form should follow function,” he says.
  • Fuel point out that it must be clear where and how the event is taking place, so they recommend sending out invitations, putting up flyers and making sure box office staff are fully briefed.

Photo: The Lakeside Theatre, Colchester.

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Touring theatre: a risky business for audiences too?

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Originally written for the Guardian Culture Professionals Network.

Risk is a word that regularly gets aired in arguments about the arts. We talk a lot about risky work, about venues and companies taking risks, about the current economic environment making many organisations risk averse – but it’s rare that this vocabulary is used in discussions aboutaudiences. At a time of punishing austerity and squeezed budgets, what do theatremakers ask audiences to risk when persuading them to buy tickets to their shows?

This question is particularly pertinent for touring companies, many of whom are struggling to reach and engage with audiences through the current touring model. As lots of these theatremakers recognise, touring is challenging, not least because of the limited time spent in each of the areas they visit. Without the time and resources to build a deeper engagement with local audiences, touring companies demand even more risk on the part of the audience than their building-based counterparts.

However, as a number of new initiatives funded by Arts Council England’s strategic touring programme are exploring, there might be ways for these companies to reduce the risk involved for their audiences without having to become artistically conservative.

One method is that of the tried and tested. “The things that are doing well anecdotally are things which have known writers and known faces,” explains Caroline Dyott, associate producer at English Touring Theatre (ETT), who also notes that audiences are “booking later so that they can take less of a risk on something”.

Picking up on this trend, what ETT hopes to do through its National Touring Group is to offer audiences large-scale, ambitious work that has already been successful elsewhere. Instead of offering famous names, it is saying to audiences: “Look at all these quotes and star reviews; this is taking away this element of risk for you.”

There is also room for improvement in the ways in which theatremakers connect and communicate with their audiences. This can be as simple as ensuring that the work is being taken to the right people. Ed Collier, a producer at China Plate, says that “touring and making for us are always completely intertwined … right from the start of the making process we’re already thinking about the audience and how we’ll reach them, through whatever dissemination or touring model that might be.”

As well as targeting appropriate audiences, another way of breaking down the sense of risk is to adjust the way in which work is discussed and marketed. “There are some pretty simple things we can do, like looking at the language we use,” suggests Gavin Stride, director ofFarnham Maltings and a key figure behind touring consortium House. “What [companies] might think makes their show sound esoteric and clever in their world isn’t necessarily the same language that needs to be used to get a show to an audience.”

Reducing perceived risk for audiences can be as simple as building familiarity through return visits. “Most of the venues that we talked to said that returning companies do better,” notes Hanna Streeter, an assistant producer with touring company Paines Plough. “It’s about building that relationship up with the audience and returning, which is what we’re trying to do.”

Taking this one step further, Fuel’s New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is reaching out to form deeper connections with each of the areas it visits. The idea is to establish a relationship with the producers, allowing audiences to take risks on new work because they trust that Fuel will give them a good night at the theatre.

As co-director Louise Blackwell explains: “When we return to each of these places, we hope that people there will have made a connection and will maybe have been to see one of the shows and say, ‘that’s by Fuel, I don’t know this new artist that they’re bringing, but I’m going to go because it’s a Fuel produced event’.”

The approaches differ, but it is all about building a sustainable audience base for future work. “It’s got to be about audiences,” says Collier, “so it’s got to be about finding ways of making theatre more popular.” Streeter stresses that Paines Plough’s work is essentially about “trying to develop audiences’ taste for new work”, while Dyott agrees that ETT’s key aim is to create an audience that will outlive the length of this project.

As Fuel is keen to emphasise, the fruits of this labour could offer benefits for the whole theatre ecology. Speaking about the company’s aim to grow a wide community of audiences who trust and return to the Fuel brand, Blackwell adds: “We hope that by having a deeper engagement with the people that live in these places that will be possible, not only for what we produce, but for the wider theatre landscape.”