Challenging with Care: a guide to thinking about your audience in a way that benefits your production.
Having recently run a masterclass at Derby Theatre exploring the concept of challenging audiences, and with the recent discussions around the Donmar Warehouse’s new policies for trigger warnings, there has been a surge of interest around audience care. Passions run deep about trigger warning policies and it sometimes feels like the discussions get right to the very heart of theatre’s purpose: rather like a tree falling in a wood – is a play a play with no audience?
As I began to create the masterclass I realised just how much opening this topic up for discussion was like opening Pandora’s box … once you start to delve into Audience Care, who knows what else you will find lurking in there: trauma, resilience, autobiographical theatre, immersive theatre, and the age old question of who theatre is for.
Here are 10 top questions that theatre companies and producing houses can ask themselves when developing work. These may not offer an answer, but will open up important thinking about this very topic:
1/ Keeping the audience in mind: When you begin to plan a production? When do you think about audiences? If conversations about the audiences are coming in towards the end of a rehearsal period ask yourself who is this piece of theatre really for?
2/ Show me the Money: When thinking about audiences do you look at this from a financial perspective (bums on seats, new audiences to meet ACE quotas)? Can we also begin to look at audiences from a more human perspective: who are we truly interested in engaging with theatre and why? To expand this thinking, we need to consider what needs to change to make our shows accessible to this group, how do we make our theatres and shows more welcoming?
3/ Can this work re-traumatise?: As we diversify the audience, we expand the traditional demographic, potentially allowing theatres to step away from the bourgeois sensibilities of the 20th century to engage with audiences who hold a whole range of lived experiences. We become more likely to engage with people that have lived through what the show is about or “dramatic” incidents that they contain.
One of the main arguments against trigger warnings is that theatre is there to challenge. If audeinces come to the theatre to to witness their lived experience played out on stage, there is the life changing potential that they may feel understood, heard and less alone. However, ask yourself: is this a statement you make to justify delving into traumatic material? The reality is that the story, if not thoroughly researched and held, has the potential to re-traumatise or frustrate audience members, highlighting that their stories are still not understood. As an aside, we also have to consider that people who have had these lived experiences need to be fully empowered to make a choice not to come and see their experiences lived out on stage….which brings us too…
4/ How do we let audiences know about content?: To trigger warning or not to trigger warning, that seems to be the question. Maybe we need to reframe and ask: what information are we choosing to withhold and why? As we think about trigger warnings we often become locked into this idea that it might ruin the plot, so instead of focusing on the importance of reveals through story ask yourselves, what are we choosing to hide and what is the purpose of that? Remember there are many ways to offer trigger warnings to your audiences:
• Add information to all the literature/flyers for the show in the blurb?*
• Add an additional link on your website to click through for trigger warning information?
• Make a statement at the start of a paragraph that the information contains plot spoilers and people can choose to read on?
• Empower box office teams to ask if people would like the trigger warning?
• Make it clearer in the content what the show is about along with key themes?
• Think about clear age warnings along with the reasons for this?
Solutions created by the Young Vic or the ‘emotive content’ warnings at the Royal Court, where audiences have to ask for the trigger warnings work can actually re-traumatise; to call somewhere to ask about the specifics of a show due to your own experiences can be shame inducing for the audience member. And remember, if you are a theatre company you can request trigger warnings in venues marketing, and if you are a venue you can ask about trigger warnings or the shows coming to you…asking the questions always allows people to stop and think if it’s something they need.
*If Netflix can start each episode with a content warning, allowing people to choose to turn off, theatres have a duty of care to ensure audiences have clear information before booking a show. It’s called informed consent.
5/ Talking about Informed Consent… How does this work when we think about audience interaction?
• Are you itching to emulate aspects of immersive theatre?
• Are you wanting to add moments where the audience are exposed or included in the show?
If so have you thought about how you can include an opt in section for participation? How do you know who to choose and how do the audience say no? (when thinking about this, ensure you also work on Question 8). A yes from an audience member is sometimes coerced due to the amount of expectation or socialisation in theatre – ask yourself…can they really say no?
6/ Caring for all: Do we have a duty of care as theatre companies and institutions if an audience member is re-traumatised during a show? How do we ensure, if this does happen, that there is a package, plan, or support available? It can be as simple as the message we see at the end of a particularly traumatic episode of a soap, ensuring ushers have cards with key support numbers on. Check out local agencies that can be there on the night to help support (a little like a mental health St John’s Ambulance) or see if the theatre has a Mental Health first aider. Offering a Q and A after the show or simply offering a space for people to connect and chat about the show is a great way to
In a similar vein – theatre experiences can endure anxiety and panic attacks? To soften this think about your exits… are you happy for audiences to leave? If so how do you let them know they have freedom of movement and where the exits are? Looking at how relaxed performances are run by theatres can help support thinking about shows that have the capacity to trigger.
7/ Power: It is important when talking about the audience to think about the power dynamics at play. Audiences hold power as they choose what to see. Theatres hold power as they choose what to show. Theatre companies hold power as they choose what to create (please note I am aware that these are sweeping statements as not all people in all places hold this power). It is so crucial when we talk about diversifying audiences that we really acknowledge what power we may have and any unconscious bias that may come from this. Are we expecting audiences to act in a certain way from our own cultural perspective?
8/ Lets talk psychology: More specifically the Milgram experiment. This was a 1963 experiment (which would struggle to pass ethics approval in this day and age) which was designed to understand the reasons for genocide in World War II. “What do genocide and theatre have in common?” I hear you ask… The answer is obedience. The experiment made clear that if people see others in positions of power or authority they can be convinced to act in ways they would not usually act (in this experiment administer a dangerous electrical shock to someone they believed was also a participant). In fact 65% of participants believed they administered 450 volts and all participants went to 300 volts. So next time you interact with the audience and they say yes, ask yourself “is this because of a willingness for play or because of feeling unable to say no?”.
9/ Talk to experts: If there are traumatic aspects within your show or you are immersing your audiences in potentially traumatising scenarios, get support from an expert in their field. Yes, artists have a whole host of information and knowledge about art and are often skilled researchers, but it is important to remember no one knows everything: 6 months of research does not compare to someone who has dedicated their life’s work to the subject.
10/ Be kind and honest: You are never going to please everyone and that’s ok. So once you have asked yourself all the above, it’s ok to make the show that you want to. And remember, audience care does not compromise art, it can strengthen your productions and offer clarity of voice to why the art is being created.
Whatever the outcome after these discussions, the importance really lies in the thinking. Yes audiences have their own internal compass and duty of care to themselves - but they also have the right to be informed and thought about. If we are really to diversify audiences we need to diversify our thinking, not presume that because “that’s the way it’s always been” means it’s the way it always should be. The way we see the world is changing and theatre can support this.
For more information about audience care, or if you would like to enquire about consultation on this topic, just get in touch.
Please note this blog does not touch on all audience care…for advice on diversifying audiences in a more specific way and identifying barriers too this, there are some great companies doing important work in this area such as:
o Ramps on the Moon
o Graeae theatre.
o Talking Birds Theatre Company and their Difference Engine
o Milk Presents
o The Party Somewhere Else
o Gail Babb
o And Many Many more…search out advice from local artists working within your area. Remember its hard to be what you can’t see.
Catching the Overwhelm before it Catches You
Working hard in the arts is important, but equally important is knowing when to stop. Those times of rest to recharge helps prevent illness and prolonged periods away from projects.
Here’s my top tips for staying with it:
Take some time before you start the project to think about you:
Before any project we spend a great deal of time making proposals, time lines, budgets, but when do we make time to think about our needs?
• Making a list of things you enjoy outside of the project that you can come back to. This allows you to have a grounding list of things to do when you need a break. This is different for everyone ranging from swimming or meditation to a Netflix brain turn off (letting someone else entertain you).
• Pop in some time off during the schedule, be that an evening, a whole day or just taking time for lunch. We all know projects can get behind, but remember all batteries need recharging at some point and no one is super human.
• Take time to think about what usually happens when you begin to feel overwhelm in the body and in the mind. Do you begin to talk fast, can you feel your heart beat a little quicker, do you find it difficult to go to sleep or do you wake in the middle of the night? Being able to catch these important signs when in the project allows you to reframe the need for those emails at midnight.
What ever it may be for you, making these list in the calm before the storm allows you to catch yourself before its too late.
In at the Deep End:
Once in the project never underestimate:
A good support network: not just on the project but in life. We know the importance of surrounding yourself with a good team at work, but ensuring you are able to meet with people totally unconnected will also help. Just talking about something different can be such a relief to the nervous system.
Laughter: by its very nature makes you feel safe. There is a science behind it…..when we laugh we are vulnerable (think open mouth, throat exposed) so to laugh lets us know we are ok where we are.
Let go: The perfectionism has a definite time and place. Remember that only you will see those little niggling things that are not quite right….step back and look at the whole picture rather than obsessing about one area.
Delegate: This is not always possible dependent on your team - particularly if you are your team - can you delegate to yourself? Writing a to-do list allows you to get those wonderfully satisfying ticks as you go down the list.
Breath…..just Breath…..like laughter it helps us know we are safe. You may have heard people refer to it as activating the parasympathetic system (rest and digest) in the body. Simply put, when our body is in panic our breath becomes short, sharp or laboured. Slowing down the breath or increasing the amount of breath taken in can reduce any panic felt in that moment. Taking 3 deep breaths is a simple one but there are many more breathing techniques which can help slow you down.
Unplug: For some people this is meditation, taking a moment to unplug and focus on your breath, a small candle, or use a guided meditation. For others its watching Cat Memes, what ever it takes just to stop thinking for 5 minutes will allow the nervous system to rest.
Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese art of Forest Bathing. Spending time within nature reduces stress and fosters a sense of wellbeing. Not convinced/no time....just spend a moment looking at a tree or a plant take it all in and reconnect with the universe outside of the project.
Pet Therapy: Stroking a pet is a brilliant stress reduction technique. Not got one....ask a friend if you can pop round and then steal theirs (do try to give them back though...). Allergies or phobia’s - grab a 20 second hug from someone you trust instead (20 seconds is allegedly the time you need to soften into all hugs and truly take a moment being held - ahhhhhh)
All of you: Remember you are not just a mind but a whole body. If you are stressed the body tenses, the heart rate increases, the breath becomes shallow, we can then find it difficult to focus the mind. Finding a way to stretch, run, dance, move, whatever it takes to come back into the whole of you.
Supervision/Therapy: A supervisor is someone that can objectively look at your work and the impact on of your work on yourself and others. A therapist can help refocus your outlook on life. Just having someone who can listen in a non-judgemental way, who is not attached to the work or your life, can be hugely beneficial. It also means that there is support on some of the decisions you are making so you feel less alone. Remember if your going for ACE funding these can run as part of your access funds.
And remember stopping is not a sign of weakness. You are not being lazy.
Why we all need to look after our Mental Health
Stage Weight was conceived during a moment of flightless abandon. I had been running so much – trying to fly and I burnt out, project after project in a never ending cycle of juggling jobs and ideas and what people expected and wanted.
Having a solid understanding of what its like to freelance as an artist on top of mental health awareness and facilitation skills as a Dramatherapist, I knew I wanted to discover how to give a bolster up to the flightless or ground the over reaching. I started to think what would I want when I was creating work? What helped me?
Arts practitioners have a tough time:
• We work project to project, long hours, intense periods of connection with other practitioners… and then its all gone, just like that.
• At the end of projects we crawl home, as if in a delicious dazed dream full of all the wonders of creation….then when we wake the next day the dawn of realisation that we have to start it all over again or as is often the case in freelancing….nothing…
• We are taught that if we really want this job we have to work hard as there are plenty of other people that will take our place if we don’t (and yes we are taught that there is only one place at the arts table vacant at any time….)
• We are taught that the industry is full of flamboyant delicate flowers and we can decide we don’t want to be one of them and become STRONG or we feel like our mental health IS our art…..
• We take job after job sometimes traveling up the imaginary ladder, sometimes skipping across to another ladder and every so often we meet a snake and feel like we have ended right back at the start.
But it’s ok right because we love what we do….so much it is almost impossible to turn off, there is always another gallery opening that we need to attend, another poetry event, theatre opening night….and our faces need to be seen right?
So how do we cope?
Well we can’t can we? Just look at the above, so much to do, so much to cram in to life, there are a only so many hours in the day.
Often we tell ourselves that our art is our self care, that it is our down time……and that would be true if, like the people that we facilitate in the Arts4Health workshops, it was done from a place of leisure and experimentation, a tool to place our very souls into and explore who we are. But Arts Council funding bids need a little more than that. We rarely get commission where art is for arts sake these days, resulting in art rarely being a cathartic experience for those working within the industry.
How do we self care in this environment?
• Intense bursts of energy on a bike/walking around a park
• Tea breaks lots of tea breaks
• Red Wine
• 10 mins of mindfulness every day (Every day??) well once a week…
• Talking to colleagues who feel the same and feeling less alone.
How do you know what works for you?
The above is my plan – created after years of experimenting with how to care for my own wellbeing. Noticing and reading the signs when things become overwhelming. But when do we give ourselves time to stop…..settled down into a comfy chair and think, “ahhhhh, this is what I need right now”.
How can we ensure that when we are running at 10,000 miles an hour on a project or feeling like we can’t get out of bed because yet another project has passed us by, we know what to do. Taking time out to have a clear strategy to pull us from this place can be invaluable.
Stage Weight aims to become a space for artists to look after themselves.
From the Arts4Health project your working on which is pulling on your boundaries and ability to sleep, to the producer who is pulled in 50 billion directions by project demands, to the Autobiographical piece of work you are creating which keeps sticking at a certain point. We all need to be grounded sometimes, to help plan clear strategies to help ourselves and the audiences we work with.
Putting our self care first ensures that the work we produce is the best it can be for our audiences.
Connection to self = connection to others.
Nikki Disney works as a creative therapist and wellbeing practitioner in the arts. Having been in various roles in the industry she knows only too well what the pressure of work in the arts can impact on wellbeing and is an advocate of support for artists and companies to support wellbeing in the arts.