Theatre in Wales

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Locating the Audience: How People Found Value in National Theatre Wales (2)

Theatre Critic Book

Kirsty Sedgman , Intellect Books , May 23, 2017
Theatre Critic Book by Kirsty Sedgman The book records a reaction to “the Persians” that is quite different. By definition the location had no residents and the book states that there was small local advertising. In an article afterwards she adds “So what’s really interesting is why “the Persians” was so popular. How did people articulate the value of this event? It was clear that most people saw “the Persians” as having little national cultural relevance.” “Here, NTW’s capacity to engage with ideas of local identity was less important than the ability of theatre generally to tap into a kind of essential humanity. Instead, what audiences appreciated was the sense that The Persians had looked beyond Wales to the “universal”.

The least involving part of the book is the preliminary chapter prior to tackling the subject. The scholarly method requires a review of the literature. The coverage is admirably exhaustive but much of what the author is obliged to report is not inspiring. There is the inevitable sub-Derridean wordplay. “Audiencing the Audience” is to any discerning reader hideous phrasing which an editor with a respect for language would throw back at its author. This class of writer loves its neologisms. “Vocacity” turns up in connection with the propensity to watch television in excess. But then Segdman cites John Holden from 2004 on a cultural climate where aesthetic values including beauty are all suspect.

The flaw in some of this treatment- the literature not Kirsty Sedgman- on the subject of audience is that it has no primary data. It is neither aesthetics nor does it have the empirical base of the social sciences. To witness a piece of theatre is anyway an activity of serial cognition that is unreproducible. Sedgman refers rightly to Bruce McConachie and his encouragement neuroaesthetic approach. Whether declaration is scholarship at all is debatable.

There is an unusual postscript to this book in that the author has distanced herself from it to a degree. There is nothing wrong with that in that all authors mature over the course of doing it. A more revealing part is “To other academics my writing often seems too accessible. This is because it focuses on people’s lived experiences of art rather than relying on abstract philosophical theories. For some people it’s too dense; for others, not enough.”

There is the paradox here of authors drawn to theatre for reasons antithetical to those that draw in audiences. The description of her own role in theatre ecology comes across as more worthwhile. “My job is to listen to audiences: to pay attention as they reach for words to describe the ineffable, to hear not just what they say but how they say it, and to consider how people’s reactions are inflected by the subject positions they take up. By doing this, I believe we can get a sense of the meaning-making process in action.” As art is a meaning-making activity for a symbol-making species that sounds a mission worth the pursuing.

She also in retrospect writes of small-sample attributions of “excellent” or “average”. “By themselves these numbers are admittedly pretty meaningless: after all, my ‘Excellent’ may well be someone else’s ‘Average’.” The later writing also throws down a challenge. “This all boils down to a question about legitimacy. Who believes they have the right to speak about theatre and in what ways?” Indeed.

Those founding years were ones of astonishing accomplishment for the National Theatre of Wales. A full written record has to be assembled. “Locating the Audience: How People Found Value in National Theatre Wales” is an intriguing beginning, its parts cumulatively illuminating. Two quotations are apposite. Terry Eagleton is persuasive in his view of culture as “a way in which we could sink our petty particularisms in some more capacious, all inclusive medium.” Up on Epynt Sedgman finds an audience member vocal on the topic of relevance “relevant is an entirely bogus notion in relation to theatre. Just do good stuff.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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