As falling budgets make it ever-harder to programme risk-taking work, how can venues engage with new LGBT+ audiences? Kaya Stanley-Money shares some advice.
In 2017, Camden People’s Theatre presented the Come as you are festival of trans, non-binary and gender-queer work. It attracted an appreciative LGBT+ audience and taught us a lot about working with, and for, that community.
You have to give new audiences the time and space to book late
Subsequently, we designed a touring version with the strategic aim of supporting venues to improve the LGBT+ diversity of both their programming and audiences. We partnered with Theatre Royal Wakefield, Derby Theatre, Exeter Phoenix, Metal and The Key Theatre in Peterborough and Lighthouse Poole, all venues located in areas with higher-than-average LGBT+ populations and low arts provision for that particular audience.
Each festival took place over two to three days and featured three strands of activity, designed for different audiences. The first focussed on making venues open and welcoming to their LGBT+ community. We delivered gender positivity training to venue staff (delivered by Milk Presents), introduced gender-neutral toilets, and using panel discussions placed each venue at the heart of the conversation about local LGBT+ issues.
The second strand sought to build relationships between LGBT+ artists and venues. The festival’s lead artists Milk Presents delivered a free devising gender workshop, and via an open call, we programmed a scratch night featuring three local artists. (Commissions were made available to venues keen to support these artists further.)
And the final strand was audiences. The festival had to speak to the venue’s general audience as well as our target demographic, and so included high-quality performances from contemporary theatre-makers. This was backed up with a portfolio of touring shows for this year which we distributed to encourage repeat LGBT+ programming.
Here are some lessons that we learnt from the tour:
- Venue staff: If venue staff are to be serious about diversifying their audiences, they need to be present. On the occasions when venue staff joined our festival producer at events, they were able to connect more deeply with their audiences, see the impact of the work at first hand, and actively explore how the venue might build on this work. By being visible and open, we were able to gather extensive feedback, respond to any needs, and encourage people to attend further events.
- Local ambassadors: A dedicated local ambassador is essential for audience development of a target group. We employed a local LGBT+ ambassador in each location as our gatekeeper to the community. They used their personal networks to help build a bespoke strategy for each location, supported by our audience engagement officer. In retrospect, those less familiar with the arts may have benefited from a more detailed template of how to translate conversations into bookings.
- Late bookings: You have to give new audiences the time and space to book late. This is really hard if you’re used to advance booking, but the majority of tickets across all festivals were bought in the last week. Reaching out to a new audience, our team had to work until the last possible moment and resist calls from one or two venues to cancel events far in advance. Securing high audience numbers was particularly challenging in venues with no regular contemporary performance offer. In these places our audience development team succeeded in reaching the target audience, but resources were too limited to build an audience interested in the artform more widely.
- Toilets: The majority of audiences were accepting of gender-neutral toilets. Most of the venues had concerns around changing toilet signage, particularly in relation to audiences attending other events. But in general, audiences took it in their stride. Throughout the tour, the only significant complaints came at a venue that had sent out an advance email warning audiences about the change. While well intentioned, this may have prepared people for a bit of a fight, although we can’t know this for sure.
Throughout the tour, we regularly re-evaluated what success meant to us, given the priority focus on targeted audience development. We had key performance indicators (KPIs) in place from the start, such as increasing attendance from LGBT+ audience members by 25% from our baseline data throughout the festival, which we achieved in most venues. For example, 58% of attendees who responded to the survey at the Lighthouse Poole identified as LGBT+, compared to 5% who responded to the pre-festival baseline questionnaire. Of those, 17% had never visited the venue before. A significant achievement for a first-time project.
More than anything, the success of the tour can be seen in the audience feedback we received. At every venue, we spoke to individuals and their families who were thrilled and moved to tears after seeing themselves represented on stage, and hearing issues addressed that were affecting them right now. One young person we met had never heard of the trans youth support group we were partnering with, and now meets with the group regularly.
It’s these stories, and the impact our festivals had on individuals, that provide the foundation for future successful iterations. This is just the beginning for our partner venues. We will support them as they build on the work the festival began, gradually introducing more LGBT+ performances into their regular programme, maintaining these new relationships and establishing themselves as spaces that support LGBT+ organisations locally.
As budgets continue to be squeezed, it’s only going to get harder for regional venues to programme risk-taking work that targets new audiences – and challenges existing audiences. But the tour has given us the drive and knowledge to develop a touring model to help them do so.
Kaya Stanley-Money is Executive Director of Camden People’s Theatre.
A full evaluation report will be published in the spring.