'The Audience Experience' is for the academic or researcher but also provides an expanded tool box of approaches to audience insight for arts professionals willing to dig, says Ivan Wadeson.

 ‘The Audience Experience’ is a collection of ten essays from academic researchers, consultants and commentators based on the premise that “while many artistic directors and general managers could discuss their audiences’ demographic – the gender, age, postcode, and other subscriber habits – they knew strangely little about what audiences were getting out of the experience”. Some may quibble with this assertion of such a stark imbalance in understanding but it does give a very particular organising principle for the contents: “this book proposes that it is time for a new kind of audience research which addresses the question: what are audiences thinking, feeling and doing as a product of their engagement with arts practices?”

with some careful digging and judicious sifting, there is useful and stimulating material in here for the Artistic Director, General Manager or Marketing Director

A book subtitled a ‘critical analysis’ will definitely find favour with the academically-inclined, the policy researcher or arts management student, as well as researchers whether professional or academic. But with some careful digging and judicious sifting, there is useful and stimulating material in here for the Artistic Director, General Manager or Marketing Director seeking some fresh thinking.

The three contributing editors – Jennifer Radbourne, Hilary Glow and Katya Johanson – are all based at Deakin University, Australia but their research, contributors and case studies come from the UK and North America as well as Australia. The book’s focus is on performing arts with case studies and chapters that concentrate on contemporary theatre, dance, live performance streamed to cinema, jazz and orchestral music. Its multi-voice, multi-artform approach is both a strength and a weakness. Successive chapters build up an overlapping picture of the audience experience but some of these feel too technical in content or language: Kim Vincs’ analysis of “the kinematics of specific [dance] movements... with levels of observer engagement” and its discussion of post-structuralism and semiotics feels too specialised for any lay reader. But although some chapters will only appeal to the professional or academic researcher, there are some critical essays, even with their academic tone, copious footnotes and references to other disciplines such as sociology or neuroscience, that will have relevance to the practitioner.

Alan Brown is an excellent read and one of the chapters that I would recommend to cultural professionals of any background. In his essay Brown discusses how the “setting [both formal/traditional and informal/non-traditional, physically and symbolically] plays an increasingly important role as a decision factor among cultural consumers, and therefore is a subtle, if not profound, driver of arts participation”. It’s an intelligent and thought-provoking piece that also looks at how artists in different artforms are playing with location, both its restrictions and its freedoms, to challenge themselves and the work created.

Most of the research reported or undertaken is from the last half-decade or decade at most. A perfect example is the excellent chapter from Martin Barker of Aberystwyth University on the phenomenon of live performance streamed to cinema. This is an aggregation of US and UK research into cinema’s “alternative content” format, dissecting issues such as ‘liveness’, ‘closeness’ and ‘immersion’ (again with that academic slant to its interrogation) that raises important questions for all cultural professionals to consider.

sometimes I wanted to hear more about application, legacy, artistic development and longer-term outcomes

Hilary Glow reviews the ‘Open Stage’ programme at Theatre Royal Stratford East in the year of the London Olympics. This gives a good insight into the intentions and process of engaging the local community as co-programmers and bringing lasting change to the theatre itself. Extracts from interviews with Artistic Director Kerry Michael and Programme Manager Charlotte Handel particularly bring it to life. Given this book was only published in July this year there is no data or evidence of the impact and changes of the programme on either the communities or the theatre, which is understandable but a shame. Much as I found stimulation in the research studies for Echoa (‘A Stomp for young people’) or the different presentation formats of the Deep Blue Orchestra and the immediate responses to both, I wanted to know more about their impacts over time. As the editors say, their focus is on process and a critical analysis of the research methods – but sometimes I wanted to hear more about application, legacy, artistic development and longer-term outcomes (my professional – and personal – bias here, perhaps.)

Some of the chapters that will resonate most for a general reader are the ones where audiences speak directly: reactions from people aged under thirty exposed to Beethoven’s fifth Piano Concerto for the first time, or quotations from ‘aficionado’ viewers of streamed performances from the Met Opera in New York or the National Theatre in London are all powerfully eloquent.

Not all of these research approaches feel as wholly ‘new’ as claimed (museum professionals from more progressive institutions may recognise elements of both collaborative engagement practice, and reflective research practice) but certainly for researchers and those seeking to gain deeper insight into audiences, the chapters on applying Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology (a form of reflective inquiry for audiences that supports their making sense of arts experiences) and Lisa Baxter’s study and use of alternative qualitative techniques – graphic ideation and metaphor elicitation –  are rich in ideas and approaches uncommon to large parts of the arts sector. And the repeated discussions of how audiences decode and understand performance as it is experienced and then make sense of this experience after the fact, or crucially are supported to reflect and interpret it, are valuable provocations for the performing arts.

In some ways then a mixed collection, pitched often at the academic or the researcher but with a wider resonance for the patient and selective reader in offering an expanded tool box of approaches to audience insight for consideration. These are not templates but food for thought. As with all case studies, the next challenge for the practitioner is to select and adapt appropriate research methodologies or collaborative practices to adapt to their own individual circumstances. A step which also requires (a different kind of) critical analysis.

Review by: 

Ivan Wadeson is Executive Director at The Audience Agency.

Book Authors: 
Jennifer Radbourne, Hilary Glow & Katya Johanson
Date of Publishing: