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.
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.