Saturday, 7 July 2012

Giving Them What They Want

Last year I did the Clore Fellowship (, and as part of that had to write a "provocation paper" on a subject of my choosing.  So I went off and interviewed 8 artistic directors and a Chair of the Board about audiences, programming and quality.  These incredibly generous people gave me about an hour of their time each (there's a list of their names at the bottom).

Then I tried to fit everything those interviews had got me thinking and talking about into a few thousand words.  I mostly failed, and I certainly (in desperation) went for far too pat an ending.  But here's the result, anyway.

(please note: the brief was to provoke thought and conversation: be very interested in hearing others' thoughts...)

Giving Them What They Want”: Theatre Audiences and Artistic Leadership

There is an artform – or possibly a craft – which is practised by a small number of people across Britain. It is not something one can obtain formal qualifications in; it is surprisingly little studied academically; there are very few books or articles written on the subject. And yet the people who do it, and the people they work with and for, have very clear ideas on how it is, and should be, done. It is the programming of a producing theatre: what is produced, when, and how.

This job is done by the artistic director, who is often also the lone or joint chief executive of the organisation. She will take advice from a variety of sources: she may work with a creative producer, associates, an advisory panel, a senior management team. And her decisions must be approved by the Board of the theatre. But in the end, the programming of the theatre is the artistic director's task: success or failure will be laid at her door.1

Over the last year, I've interviewed eight British artistic directors: six of regional producing theatres, one of a London producing theatre; and one artistic director of a non-building-based national theatre. I also spoke to one Chair of a Board of Trustees. I've asked them all about audiences, quality, and success.2 And with each interview I became more and more astonished at the extraordinary balancing act they were all performing. Each seemed perfectly able to hold competing interests and contradictory ideas in creative tension. One or two seemed unaware of the obvious contradictions in what they said – but most seemed aware yet pragmatically undeterred. Like a chainsaw-juggling unicyclist heading out on a narrow plank bridge over a bottomless chasm, if they thought too much about the sheer ridiculousness of the task, they might stop, I suppose...

Q: How do you know what the core audience will think of what you programme?
A: Well, you don't, do you?”3

Nobody knows anything about audiences really.”

And I've also become slightly depressed at the very little distance my profession seems to have come in the thirty years since John McGrath made his plea for a popular theatre in A Good Night Out. The opinions of “a well-fed, white, middle class, sensitive but sophisticated literary critic” are still very widely universalised.4 We are still making theatre for a fairly small club, and very largely judging work by the standards of that club. And there are very good reasons why. But I'm still dispirited. And a little angry.

Let me explain.

At the centre of the whole enterprise is the audience. Financially, a producing theatre routinely sails close to disaster: with earned income from box office, bar and cafe making up between 40 and 75% of a subsidised theatre's income, a couple of shows selling much worse than expected can be enough to make a huge dent in a theatre's finances.5 And more than a couple may bring a theatre to bankruptcy.6

And it's more than that. An almost-empty art gallery, museum or library may not be great for the leadership of that organisation – it certainly doesn't help them make a case for public funding – but it is often a rather pleasant place for the visitor: a chance to enjoy the collections or the books in peace. An almost-empty theatre, on the other hand, is not only a PR and financial disaster. It's a horrible experience for everyone involved – audience, performers and staff.

So we need them. Desperately. But we also – often – don't trust them.

who are the best guardians of what success looks like? I think it’s the public... how many people want to come.”

A full theatre makes everybody happy.”

obviously one indicator of success is that people want to come and see the show – so sold-out houses are an indicator of success, of excitement about the piece of work”

I've sat in full audiences where audiences have been enjoying it, and it's been shit. And I've done that often. I've done it more often than sat in full audiences where it's actually been any good.”

All the artistic directors I spoke to flipped back and forth between apparently trusting an audience, and their sense of what was good (“Everybody knows when something's working or not”) and the acknowledgement that the reasons an audience attends and enjoys themselves are complex – and that artists may disagree with an audience's judgement.

Say I buy a ticket to something that I think you will like. We want to have a good time. We've paid twenty quid, there's a bus or a taxi, a round of drinks – so we've got a lot of investment in it being good. And you go there and most things are theoretically serviceable... People like a good story. And they laugh at the jokes that aren't funny because they're asked to. People are very polite. And partly that persuades them that they're having a good time. And they don't want to be persuaded that they're not having a good time.”

Sometimes I was sitting there thinking 'oh my God why is everyone clapping, this could be so much better'... that is where professional judgement does come in”

I do this too. I want to believe that the audience is right: that I can sit in an audience and tell whether they're enjoying themselves, and that that is the most honest and morally right assessment of the success of a show. After all, “theatre is always made as a conversation with the audience. The audience is half of the work”. If you didn't care about a live audience, you'd be making short films or writing novels. And it's very pleasant to believe that the audience are the best arbiters when you're sitting in an auditorium that's fairly full of people who appear to be enjoying your show. But then, I too have sat in theatres where a large audience was apparently having a great time – and thought the show was lazy, misguided, or simply terrible. So what then? Are they simply wrong? And if an audience can be wrong about this, was that other audience wrong about my show? Or is it all just a matter of taste?

Obviously it's going to be a matter of taste. It's got to be taste, hasn't it?

So whose taste should we pay attention to?

We're certainly not programming for critics.”

Of course the critics are in your head when you programme. I think anyone's lying who says they're not”

Theatre faces ever-increasing competition for audiences: what with cinema, multiple TV channels, and hours spent online, it's amazing anyone has time to go to the theatre at all. And in the competition for audiences, and with the almost total loss of the old model of season-ticket holders, national press attention is extremely important. As one AD told me, “we had to get a national reputation before I could get a local reputation. I had to interest the industry before I could interest the local audience.” Every artistic director I spoke to – every freelance director I know – has a detailed understanding of the output and taste of each individual critic at each of the major national papers.7

But those dozen or so people aren't the whole audience. The artistic director of an Arts Council- (and usually local council-) subsidised producing theatre is using public money to make their work. And all of those I spoke to were very aware of that fact. Allegedly, it used to be a rather frequent occurrence that an artistic director would “take over a theatre and run it into the ground by doing a Moliere season or whatever: 'I'm an artist, I need to create great art'”. I don't know whether this was ever a common attitude, but certainly none of the artistic directors I spoke to had it. Most of the people I spoke to were extremely conscious of a duty to “other people's money” and to the theatre that will “be – hopefully – here long after I’m gone.”

It may sound simplistic, but everyone pays for us, so everyone has an equal right to experience us and be enriched by us... The ambitious aim is to somehow at some point reach everyone.... It's clearly impossible.”

The 'everyone' here is probably limited to those living within a reasonable distance of the theatre building – or more simply, everyone who lives within the council boundaries. But even this is more of an aspiration than a reality. Even a large, successful regional theatre like the Sheffield Crucible will be visited by only a proportion of the population of Sheffield.8 So who will come? Who is the theatre actually serving?

The obvious answer is those who are interested in going to a theatre at all (and that already excludes a great swathe of the population who just don't think of it as for them9) – and, more specifically, those whose taste matches the programmer's taste.

You can only programme work that you want to see... Because you totally have to believe in what you are doing. And if you don't, if you programme something for the sake of putting it on, because you think it will be popular, or you're trying to reach all of the people some of the time, the audience are going to smell that. They can sniff that out, no question.”

This belief that the audience will know if you make work cynically was almost an article of faith amongst the artistic directors I met.

the key thing is not to programme anything which you think “oh that’s the banker”... Because if I don’t believe that thing can be brilliant, then that’s going to wash down like a hideous tide of horribleness.”

I've always done the plays I've wanted to do, that I'm interested in putting on. That has to be the bottom line, I think...”

I have a duty to put on plays I want to see.”
And yet. How is it possible to marry this need for the individual artist's investment and belief in every single show with the desire to serve “everyone”? In London, the circle is more easily squared: there are plenty of other theatres down the road, so if a local council tax payer isn't getting the work they want at your theatre, they can easily go off somewhere else and find it. But almost all the regional artistic directors I spoke to provide a city with the only subsidised theatre for quite some distance. So they feel “a duty” to provide “something for everyone”.

And it's not only a moral duty – there are financial imperatives:

I hope even if I don't like it, I hope it's not something I would be ashamed to have on. But you know, hand on heart, I couldn't really say – [touring theatre company], for example, that's not really my thing. But there's definitely an audience for it. And they come in and have a perfectly lovely time, and it's a different audience, and it means we can programme other things either side of that... because we're not going to have [the same] people coming every week, so if you think about all the performances we have on all year, we must have lots of different groups of people coming, who self-select what they want to see out of the programme.”

It sounds a little like providing a selection box. Of course, it's not for everyone – as previously discussed, it's a narrow band of society that will be reading that season brochure and picking and choosing the shows they'll turn up to. But the problem is, even that limited segment of society that reads your season brochure or sees your posters will have varied tastes. And how do you know what they want – what range of flavours to put in their selection box? Even if you were prepared to just give them what they want, how can you if you don't know what that is?

This is the conundrum commercial theatre tries to solve by only ever putting on work with plenty of familiarity factors: a title, a star, a writer (preferably all three) that we already know the public like. Regional reps in Leeds, Bolton, Oldham or Plymouth find it rather harder to attract well-known stars, but they certainly try – and a well-known TV actor in the right part makes a massive difference to box office.

'Who's in it?' That's always the first question.”

Failing a TV star you can still go for a well-known playwright or classic well-loved play (preferably on the syllabus to get lots of schools in). But repeating the same safe list of titles won't get you national press attention and plaudits. There's “a danger of becoming the theatrical equivalent of UK Gold”. And nobody bothers to review UK Gold – or provide public subsidy for it.

Of course, you can always ask the public what they want to see. But that may not be particularly useful. One artistic director I spoke to had a Jacobean tragedy currently selling badly in his main house – despite the feedback he'd received from focus groups which had indicated that audiences wanted to see more Jacobean drama.

I don't really take very much notice [of focus groups]. Because I don't really believe in it. Because people will say what you want them to say... Sometimes they say, “we'd like to see more unusual plays”, and then we do something more unusual and they don't come!”

And in any case, “people actually don't want what they want” - or perhaps more precisely, people don't know what they want. Because they haven't read every play that exists, they haven't met every interesting artist out there, they don't know all the options. They've got jobs and families and other things to do with their time, so they've delegated that judgement to their subsidised expert.

We are selling our judgement. You've got nothing else to sell.”

People want you to surprise them... to be surprised and delighted”.

Which is why unexpected hits and failures happen. Why there's no formula. Why Bill Kenwright still makes losses on things now and then despite years of expertise, and why Les Mis has unexpectedly been running for 25 years in the West End. As Sam West said recently in a speech to the House of Commons, “If in trying to drum up support for Les Miserables I'd called a hedge fund to say "how'd you like to back a musical adaptation of a 900-page Socialist novel by two unknown French guys?", I don't think they'd have called me back.”10

So where does this leave the beleagured artistic director? Needing to provide enough familiarity to get people in through the door, yet needing to surprise and delight them enough that they go home and tell their friends they must see it too. Needing to personally love every play she programmes, yet with a duty to provide something for everyone. Needing to sell enough seats to keep the theatre financially viable, but not “sell out” or “pander” so far that the national critics or the Arts Council decide the work's not of high enough quality.

Oh – and no-one can actually tell you what they mean by 'quality', either. But the audience certainly aren't the people who decide.

The Arts Council of England and Wales, under pressure to include some element of peer review in their assessment processes, recently (2010) set up a system whereby all ACE-funded work is now seen by an artistic assessor, who writes a report on the quality of the work. Informal peer review, of course, has always happened, as has assessing critical response. The Australian Council for the Arts has gone even further, and is currently advocating an extremely thorough research-based method for assessing “artistic vibrancy”. There are, apparently, five elements:

Quality & Excellence of Craft;
Audience Engagement & Stimulation;
Development of Artists;
Curation & Development of Art-Form;
Relevance to the Community.

Each can be assessed using a combination of surveys, focus groups, internal discussion and interviews. The audience will be asked about whether they were emotionally engaged and intellectually stimulated; the local community will be asked about relevance. But the quality and excellence of the craft demonstrated – “the demonstrated skill of the actors, directors, set designers and other crew members” - is to be assessed only via interviews and surveys of artists, staff, peers and guest artists. Not any ordinary audience members.11

These are the ways we judge quality. Industry peers, expert witnesses. Not by asking a bunch of amateurs.

They may need to be taught to recognise it, though.

the reality is that when you sit in a theatre, you recognise quality. Now I've trained them, they won't take less than that quality.”

Few were as blunt as this, but several of my interviewees talked about developing their audience's tastes.

some of the things I did were to catch the audience up with some of the things that had happened in theatre in the last 20 years”

it is really important that you do want to take them by the hand and lead them somewhere – you cannot pander – I mean otherwise we'd have a staple diet of Ayckbourn”

It sounds rather patronising put like that – and there are those who think this attitude is old-fashioned:

That used to be a very common way of describing things, didn't it - “I want to take the audience on a journey” - that there's a direction you knew you should be taking the audience in – and it was a direction towards Howard Barker or the late Jacobeans or whatever it was.”

There is certainly a whiff of superiority here I'm uncomfortable with. The experts who know what is good for the audience better than they do can all too easily get very sniffy about all popular theatre. But there are truths I recognise buried here. Expert knowledge is different to amateur appreciation – there is a difference in the judgements Anthony Blunt and I would offer in an art gallery. And left to programme a theatre themselves, the audience would only ask for, and get, what they already know about – how can they do otherwise?

But they don't want that, necessarily. They want to be surprised and delighted.

And there is another side to this: a side which came up rather less often in my interviews. It works both ways. The artist needs to be surprised and delighted by the audience, too.

theatre is a conversation with an audience... a theatremaker should always be thinking about the audience, and if they think about an audience that is essentially themselves replicated then it may not be the most interesting conversation that you could have.”

The best theatre is made when the artists involved are fascinated by their audience. Not assuming they know how they will react, not pandering to their perceived whims, but entering into a dialogue in which the end result isn't already decided. Where the audience are genuinely part of the show – where the show would be different if a different group of people had turned up.

For a live art form, it's depressing how rarely that happens.

In my experience, it happens most often in work for children, and in work made for non-traditional theatre spaces. My theory now is that this is because making that work requires theatre artists to come to their audience afresh: they can't assume they know how they'll behave or react, because the usual rules won't apply.

To take one example, the National Theatre of Wales spent its first year making “located” pieces of theatre: work which was developed in a spirit of research and enquiry, in a specific Welsh location – sometimes including non-professional performers from that location. I saw two of those first twelve pieces. They were both disjointed, flawed, highly variable in quality and tone. One of them, frankly, bored me. But they both contained fresh and joyful moments, and one (The Passion in Port Talbot) was the most exciting piece of theatre I've seen in years. Was that because of the way the work was created: in partnership with a whole town?

NTW's first show, A Good Night Out In The Valleys was the result of a series of workshops with people in the South Wales Valleys: “asking them what they thought a show about the valleys should be like, asking them what they thought the valleys story was, asking them what a good night out would be.” The company set themselves the challenge of making a piece of work which responded to whatever they discovered – even when it didn't quite suit their expectations.

we'd expected to do a piece with six characters in it and we had six actors, and one of the things we got as feedback was that they really liked character changes, so we ended up making this piece with about 30 characters...”

The messy, multi-strand, anarchic piece they created sold out at every venue they played at. People loved it. However, I've also heard it described as “playing to the lowest common denominator... it was crass”12. And John E McGrath, NTW Artistic Director13, said it was a piece that “amongst some of the great and the good in Wales was not considered necessarily an appropriate piece to start a national theatre with.”

Some people just don't like funny plays, of course. They feel that somehow the thing isn't valuable or worthy if it's making them laugh. The same woman who told me A Good Night Out in the Valleys was crass, also told me she thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt rather sorry for her.

And also rather depressed. Because this is where we've got to. Thirty years on from John McGrath's call to arms for a populist theatre which doesn't universalise the middle-class literary critic's opinion, subsidised theatre is still essentially a middle-class entertainment, judged by the standards of a small group of white, middle-class, university-educated people.

And that's not an insult, despite what it may sound like. Extremely talented theatre-makers are making and programming work they love and believe in, in theatres across the country. And audiences are enjoying it – including me. But we're still deceiving ourselves if we claim that we're making “something for everyone”. And we're all too often not making work out of a genuine spirit of enquiry. We still talk about taking an audience on a journey towards something we think they'll like, rather than inviting them to join us in a journey towards an unknown destination – a journey on which we both might discover something surprising and delightful.

Addendum, Spring 2012

I sent this paper to my interviewees to check I hadn't insulted or misrepresented them, and they kindly agreed to let me go ahead.

John E McGrath replied with a point which feels important to add. He questioned why I'd been depressed by some of the attitudes to programming and to popular theatre I'd come across:

“If your paper is asking what role the audience should have in programming, then what the NTW first year suggests is that it's not simply a question of choice, but of engagement, in a variety of ways, in creation of work. That seems an exciting rather than a depressing thought!”

John, I salute you. And I look forward to seeing and hopefully making more work which genuinely engages with audiences in its creation. There are some brilliant people out there exploring what that means.  Exciting times.

With enormous thanks for the time, thoughtfulness and patience of my interviewees:

Helen Birchenough, ex Chair of the Board, Salisbury Playhouse
Ian Brown, ex Artistic Director & Chief Executive, West Yorkshire Playhouse
Daniel Evans, Artistic Director, Sheffield Crucible
Sean Holmes, Artistic Director, Lyric Hammersmith
Gwenda Hughes, ex Artistic Director of the New Vic Theatre, Stoke
John E McGrath, Artistic Director, National Theatre of Wales
Andrew Smaje, Chief Executive, Hull Truck Theatre
Simon Stokes, Artistic Director, Theatre Royal Plymouth
Joe Sumsion, Artistic Director, Dukes Theatre, Lancaster

And a moment's regret for all the other amazing artistic directors and programmers I didn't get to speak to – but then this paper would have been even longer and further past its deadline than it is already.

  1. To avoid “he or she” awkwardness, I'm sticking with the feminine. It's my provocation paper. I'm allowed.

  2. Depending on how you define a regional producing theatre, there are between 35 and 45 of them in England & Wales. Include all the London NPO producing theatres and you get beyond 50, but not much. So my sample is small, but not completely insignificant.

  3. All quotes, unless stated otherwise, are from interviews conducted in person during 2011.

  4. McGrath, John. 1981. A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form. London: Nick Hern Books

  5. The Lyric Hammersmith, a London producing theatre with a good fundraising profile: 44% income from box office & trading (bar, programmes, etc) in 2009/10. West Yorkshire Playhouse, a large regional producing house with high levels of Arts Council & other grants: 54% income from box office & trading in 2009/10. Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, a producing theatre with a much smaller level of grant funding: 73% from box office & trading in 2010/11.

  6. Admittedly when a theatre goes into administration, the reasons why are usually very complicated (and often disputed). However, poor return on the box office is usually involved: and

  7. Although our obsession with national press critics may soon seem quaint: see for one summary of the state of theatre criticism. This argument is too involved to have here, however.

  8. A musical at the Crucible averages 28,000 attendees; a new play might only reach 2,000. The estimated population of Sheffield City is 555,500.

  9. Masses has been written about who doesn't attend theatres and why. If you're interested in this stuff, this might be a good place to start digging deeper: According to my interviewees, these excluded segments are from both ends of the social spectrum. An artistic director (not of the Sheffield Crucible) told me “We don't really get posh people here... Not like the National.. They're all watching opera”



  12. A conversation in a pub with a London theatre-maker who shall remain nameless.

  13. No, not the same John McGrath as the one who wrote A Good Night Out. I know. It's confusing. Sorry. Incidentally, it's no accident that John E McGrath's A Good Night Out In the Valleys references John McGrath's classic book. “It launched our year as a conscious way to explore the questions about programme and audience that he asks”.  

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