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Digital platforms enhance audience engagement in museums and galleries but can the same be done in the performing arts? Ben Walmsley discusses a research project in contemporary dance.

Dancer on the floor
Robbie Synge's 'Douglas', commissioned by Yorkshire Dance for the Respond project

Sara Teresa

It can often be challenging in the performing arts to engage with audiences on a relational level. Constraints of time, space and place can combine to restrict and contract the audience experience. From the audience perspective, it can often feel as though you’re invited into an arts space only to be ushered through it, around it and out of the door in the space of a couple of hours.

We learnt from our research that digital platforms can encourage audiences to slow down and dwell

It is easier in the museum and gallery sector to engage with audiences in a more relational way and there’s an increasing number of examples of excellent practice here (not least Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum). There is much that the arts and cultural sector can learn from museums and galleries, and one obvious way to counter the temporal and spatial constraints imposed by the performing arts is to invest in digital engagement.

Empathy and ownership

As part of a Nesta-funded R&D project with Yorkshire Dance, I worked recently as part of a team to develop a responsive online platform called Respond and evaluate its potential to deepen audience engagement and break down barriers to attending contemporary dance.

The platform attempted to break down cognitive barriers to dance by showing and explaining the rationale behind certain choreographic decisions and giving audiences demystifying insights into the rehearsal and development processes. When it came to the live performances, some of the audience participants felt liberated from the chore of decoding and interpreting, and reported having a more emotive and kinaesthetic response.

The qualitative research with audience participants suggested that digital platforms can help to provide artistic context and increase anticipation before a live event. The ability of digital tools to enable asynchronous communication with the artists seemed to develop a strong sense of empathy with them. It left participants feeling a greater sense of ownership of the work and actively willing it to succeed.

Reflection and conversation

We learnt from our research that digital platforms can encourage audiences to slow down and dwell. This is significant because qualitative audience researchers are increasingly discovering that methods, such as guided introspection (where researchers encourage audiences to reflect back on and relive artistic experiences), can in and of themselves heighten and enhance the original artistic experience.

As one of our participants confided, engaging with artists and fellow audience members on the digital platform forced her to be more mindful. It provided a welcome antidote to the kneejerk reaction encouraged by the like-and-move-on model of Facebook, the reductive format of Twitter, the snap-happy format of Instagram and the ephemeral nature of Snapchat.

Reflecting the research of theatre scholars like Lynne Conner, we also learnt that digital platforms can indeed offer sought-after anonymity and combat the prevalent inhibitions often expressed by audience participants when offered opportunities to engage in activities of decoding and sense-making.

In other words, digital platforms like Respond can open up artistic conversations to people who often feel too shy, ignorant or excluded to contribute to live events such as post-show talks. They can mitigate against the narrow band of elite voices that enjoy the cultural empowerment to share their views in public. This is surely a major benefit in terms of audience development, diversification and enrichment.

Potential for deeper communication

Despite the many design and resourcing challenges, when scaffolded and utilised effectively, digital tools can certainly foster a richer, deeper and longer artistic exchange. For example, it was noteworthy that the two dance artists involved in Respond appreciated the platform’s ability to generate “more reflective, expansive and generative” modes of expression. They also valued the opportunity to re-read and reflect back on participants’ comments, an advantage generally precluded by the spontaneous and ephemeral nature of face-to-face exchange.

So, while digital engagement is certainly no holy grail it continues to prove its potential to revolutionise audience engagement, not least by extending, enhancing and democratising communication between artists, audiences and producers, and by making it more equal, reflexive and empathic.

Ben Walmsley is Associate Professor in Audience Engagement and Postgraduate Research Tutor at the University of Leeds.

Comment from Deborah Bull

Ben’s research draws out an important nuance – that well-designed digital experiences can positively impact on both an audience’s experience and on the creators’ understanding of how their work is perceived through mutually beneficial conversations about and around the work, the artists and the artform.

What’s especially interesting is the focus on newly developed platforms for engagement, ones that take us beyond the restrictions and limitations of current social media channels. It suggests that cultural organisations or individual productions could gain greater insight and provide an enhanced experience by designing their own digital venues that maximise and increase the depth of audience interactions over time.

Culture Minister Matt Hancock recently launched the Government’s Culture is Digital campaign, which builds on the Culture White Paper’s aim to enhance online cultural experiences and boost community engagement in culture through digital content and distribution. What shape this will take is yet to be decided, but Hancock has extended an open invitation for cultural organisations to be part of the conversation, which takes place, appropriately, online.

It’s not so long ago that the idea of digitally enabled participation in the creative and artistic processes that underpin performance would have been considered a step too far. Ben’s research indicates that inviting audiences to actively engage in creative processes and artistic decisions may lead to a deeper connection with the work and a more rounded experience of performance itself.

Deborah Bull is Assistant Principal of King’s College London.

This article is a summary of research prepared for CultureCase.org, a resource from King’s College London to provide the sector with access to academic standard research.

Photo of Ben Walmsley
Photo of Deborah Bull