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