In a bid to listen more to its audiences, Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre launched a collaborative project that resulted in an ‘audience manifesto’. Amanda Dalton shares the surprising results.

Photo of woman standing with arms out wide
Audience members perform the manifesto

Working in the round, here at the Royal Exchange, we often speak of the intimacy between audience and performer that the theatre space creates – demands even. We speak of ‘exchange’ and ‘our audiences’, but who are they and what do they really want and get from theatre? What might we learn by really listening to audiences? What could this teach us about why people don’t engage with theatre, as well as why they do?

We started to think about how we might begin a different kind of dialogue with audiences that wasn’t rooted in the usual quantitative feedback questionnaires or vox pops

Isn’t it the case that the audience is usually seriously under-represented in conversations about theatre and the future of the art?

Focus on the audience

A couple of years ago, we started to think about how we might begin a different kind of dialogue with audiences, one that wasn’t rooted in the usual quantitative feedback questionnaires or vox pops, but was more about a genuine, creative and open conversation. This work became You, The Audience.

Over the past two years the programme has quietly developed, surprising and changing our practice and us along the way. It’s taken place through conversations with artists and theatre writers, and in many conversations with audiences. Sometimes it’s happened through events such as ‘A Night at the Theatre’, when 100 audience members slept on stage.

As Sarah Frankcom, our Artistic Director said at our recent symposium: “The people who are this theatre’s audience are our biggest stakeholders. Every year they invest more money in us than anyone, even Arts Council England, and in lots of ways they ask for far less.”

We have already shaped and developed our relaxed performances offer, started an audience access user group, introduced new audience conversation groups in the café, begun a process of audience consultation to re-imagine the Great Hall and created projects such as the ‘Listening Exchange’, where we invite members of the public to talk about what theatre does and doesn’t mean to them.

An audience manifesto

A vital part of the programme has been the creation of an audience manifesto, made over two years by 2,150 audience members. It has been full of surprises.

The process began at an open day where visitors were invited to create manifesto statements. It continued as an online invitation for anyone to add to it, through a project where members of the public designed a blueprint for theatre, and through conversations with a diverse range of audience forums and groups.

A long list of statements emerged and visitors to the theatre, online and through our community partnerships, were then invited to create their own top ten.

Some of the statements that proved popular at first fell away – for the good reason that we could respond quickly to them. The call for jacket potatoes on the café menu was a frontrunner. While the statement has been struck from the manifesto, what has remained is the invaluable conversations we had with audience members about why the menu in a theatre restaurant matters. What does a cultural building’s menu say about the values of the organisation? What does it communicate about who that organisation thinks it’s there for? The ubiquitous jacket potato is the most democratic of meals – these were the values the people were voting for.

Several of the statements that made it into the manifesto might appear obvious and underwhelming. But when we talk about them with audiences, and drill down just a little to what lies beneath, it quickly becomes apparent that these are aspects of theatre about which people hold complex and passionate feelings and which throw down real challenges for theatre. Here are some examples:

  • “I want theatre to know it belongs to the public and to reflect this in everything it does.”
  • “Do artists make work for themselves or for the people who will experience it?”
  • “I want a theatre that recognises the audience is part of the performance.”

Over and again, audience members were saying to us that theatre is not about ‘us’ (the audience) and ‘them’ (the performers), but about being in something together, in the moment, connected. How do we get better at communicating the message that theatre is about community, that it’s a communal, live, shared event and this is perhaps why it matters?

An audience-centered partnership

In February we hosted a symposium event where the manifesto was shared with delegates through a short performance by 16 members of our audience. We brought together many of the artists, theatre writers, academics and theatre executives from across the UK who are making work, writing and researching, and leading theatres in ways which might be described as ‘audience-centered’.

It was a day of sharing, learning and, as one delegate fed back to us: “This feels like the first event of its kind. Now more than ever we need to be focusing on audiences – not as ‘bums on seats’ but as our partners.”

Community initiatives

We are now recruiting people from our outreach programmes, the streets and existing audiences to work with us to develop our response to the manifesto. It will be an alternative theatre charter and will form the blueprint for our public-facing work over the next five years. It will challenge us to demonstrate our commitment to being a theatre that is genuinely in meaningful conversation with the people of Greater Manchester.

We’re also setting up an audience forum drawn from communities across the region to steer our audience consultation process as we develop a capital project for the theatre, using the manifesto as the framework for change.

We’re developing a partnership with RECLAIM, a Manchester-based youth leadership and social change organisation, that explores how working-class young people can reclaim their entitlement to and ownership of large cultural venues in their city.

We’re also extending and refining our theatre café programme of audience-led conversation and debate. And, following A Night at the Theatre, we’re bringing communities and theatre artists together to design and curate an annual programme of bespoke one-off events designed to lift the manifesto from the page, into the heart of everything we do.

The Audience Manifesto

  1. I want theatre to challenge me, I want it to challenge all of us
  2. I want a theatre where absolutely everyone feels welcome
  3. I want a theatre to be a safe place for difficult conversations
  4. I want theatres that everyday people can afford to go to
  5. I want theatre to demonstrate more ethnic diversity on and off stage
  6. I want theatre to be a place for children
  7. I want theatre to know it belongs to the public and to reflect this in everything it does
  8. I want a theatre that knows everyone can make theatre
  9. I want a theatre that understands theatre can happen anywhere and should happen everywhere
  10. I want a theatre that gets into communities and listens
  11. I want a theatre that recognises that the audience is part of the performance
  12. I want theatre to connect more with ordinary people
  13. I want theatre to speak for people whose voices wouldn’t be heard otherwise
  14. I want theatre to be demanding and entertaining at the same time
  15. I want theatre to allow me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes
  16. I want to be transported into different lives and worlds
  17. I want theatre to be a place to relax

Amanda Dalton is Director of Engagement at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

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In 21st of arts spectrum, it is no more one-direct interaction between performers and audiences. Unlike to early 1900s, the relationship of the arts with the society has been changed and people perceive arts not in a same way as before due to cultural changes. Some people even say that classical music is draining because formats of operas are extraordinarily expensive to stage with fancy mandatory-feeling clothes, some people even feel like they are not welcomed to the arts world. I guess it is a time for us to turn the angle of how we should view the cultural field. It is not all about whether quality of performance is good or not. A new project that launched in Manchester’s Royal Exchange, ‘You the Audience’ is reaching out to audiences finding their own ways of collaborating with the arts center unlike to passive participators. As the writer mentioned above, some audience members stated that the theater is not for ‘us’(audiences), but them (performers), which means that audience and performers were not communal and interactive enough. The theme of ‘You the Audience’ reminds me the book from Bau Graves, ‘Cultural Democracy’ addresses that it is essential to understand mutual interaction between performing artists and audiences, and artists often overlook how content and meaning of their artwork is processed to outsiders. The author defines ‘successful’ performance when spectators and performers have the sparking moment that crossed out and both artists and audience gather their energies throughout the art. As the theater adopt audiences’ participation, it might fundamentally change the starting points around how administers choose what audiences are in needs.

How insightful to involve the community. Breaking the barriers between art and community and creating accessibility. In addition to providing a space for the community, and an understanding of its needs and wants, a ripple effect of this kind of expression is showing the community how valuable the arts are to the community, beyond your current stakeholders. When there's positive momentum around something it usually creates a positive association with it, and as a result new and more stakeholders will participate. We repeatedly see the neglect of funds for the arts, garnering less importance invested in the arts. By having the community fully engaged the way you are demonstrating with your project, is showing obvious return, and demystifying the arts and its place in the community.