Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Unconvincing Audience Research

Consultants at the Theatre Conference 2016

“Ooh, I shall be annoyed if anything happens to Sweet Micaela in acts 3 /4”. That is from #blogONCarmen. “Women seem to like Cellini's hard-drinking stuff. It's a mystery to me. I prefer staying in with a box set.” These words of enthusiasm come from a celebrity invited to make comment on a big production by the English National Opera. The first is from Opera North.

The more fascinating aspects of these comments are less the content than who they might be intended for and why managements are so concerned for their generation. Galleries with big exhibitions would not welcome the blocking of visual sightlines by microbloggers. In fact the V&A discouraged even sketchbooks this year out of concern for other viewers.

Not so at the opera. “We have been experimenting with allowing social media during performances with great success” says the Head of Communications at Opera North. That leaves out quite what is the definer of success. Sceptically it may mean that all noise is regarded as a good in itself. But the base of all communication is the signal-noise ratio. The signal is the impetus to others to buy a ticket. The rest is noise.

It leaves unasked as to who this might be good for. Of course no-one asks the actual makers of art, the performers and the company, as to their opinion of audience members who are unable to sustain attention. It seems a managerial posture, a lack of faith in the work. Theatre at one end exudes a boisterous self-confidence. But at the other end there seems a terrible lack of confidence in itself.

Thus the public face of one company includes the lines “Make us part of your digital life and get the latest news, updates and ticket offers in the places you like to hang out online. We love to make and share lots of digital stuff - films, photos, interviews, audio programmes.” It reads awkwardly. It is a fifty-something trying to chill out with the kids. Test it out on real young people and they will say the words are not even right. It is simply the wrong language.

Theatre had a conference in 2016 that was much kicked in press and comment. It focused on the pricing which favoured the wealthy and excluded the needy. Less publicised was the fact that it was a rotten venue anyhow. Mix-and-mingle is the real raison d'etre of all industry get-togethers. The venue had insufficient public space so that the all-important personal exchanges took place on the pavement.

It was also occasion for a presentation about audiences. It was reported in “the Stage” of 16th May but without critical comment. “Theatre risks failing to replenish its ageing audiences with a new generation because young people are looking to other art forms” ran the headline adding “research has claimed.” From the perspective of one who was briefly with a not too-bad marketing consultancy several aspects stood out.

The methodology looked good, data from more than 500 venues and 10.6 million households. Its headline figures surprised. “An estimated 40% of English households attend [sic] the theatre, but just 15% see two or more shows a year.” With the average age of all audiences being 52” the market research CEO “suggested that the average age is set to increase “considerably” over the next 10 years if the profile of theatregoers remains the same and organisations do not reach out to different audiences.” This is plain extrapolation. But theatre is like other retailers. The bumper income at Christmas pays the overhead for much of the rest of the year. Given that the Christmas income is buoyed by parents and grandparents with kids and grand-kids it seems fanciful that this will not continue.

“Our data suggests that younger audiences tend to prefer other art forms, so they are perhaps engaging more with other performing art forms” she told The Stage. But this only has validity if it makes comparison with longitudinal data. Given that this could have equally been said of 1966 it looks shallow stuff.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
26 December 2016


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