Nick Williams says the language of the arts sector is turning audiences off.
One thing that struck me very strongly at the What Next event this week was, whilst we were talking about audiences a lot, we didn’t discuss audiences themselves very much.
The concept of talking to the audience to get them to lobby on behalf of all arts activity is sound. We have seen grass roots activity make political change in areas like the attempt to sell-off the forests. But to get others to speak on our behalf, we need people to feel deeply connected and unfortunately many people just don’t feel that way. Curiously that doesn’t mean that they don’t engage – as we saw from the Cultural Olympiad evaluation, people don’t necessarily think in the language that the arts uses and huge numbers find our words off-putting and so don’t associate themselves with our world.
The term The Arts can often make people think that our work is not for them. So we should stop talking about ‘the arts’ and start talking about theatre, plays, concerts, performances, musicals, dance, exhibitions, ballet, paintings, sculptures, books. These are what everyday people see. Not some amorphous, high-brow monolithic eater of public money that is not for them, and calls itself The Arts.
Our own language often turns people off, so we need to change our language. I produce and tour contemporary international plays. These are two words which a huge number of people find off-putting. So we try not to use them publicly. What we do is tell stories, often from perspectives garnered from outside the UK. We want people to see our shows. We want people to explore perspectives on the world. Fundamentally, we want people to have a great night at the theatre, that sends them away talking about what they’ve seen, maybe even thinking about it the next day. Most people want entertainment in their spare time and this shouldn’t be a dirty word. Why not entertain, alongside stimulating, engaging, provoking and all the other things we hope our work will do? So we should keep in sight that Entertainment is what the majority of people really want in their spare time and that this is not at odds with high quality artistic work.
Once we have started to embrace a different form of talking about our work and acknowledged what will motivate a potential audience to actually buy a ticket, we can think about how we might entice, coax and draw them in. We should talk about our work in terms that potential audiences will engage with. This is not about making everything we do seem simplistic when it is fundamentally complex. But it is about getting to the heart of why someone should come and see our show. If we talk to audiences in a way that is clear and honest, rather than describing our work in artistic terms that only the arts community understand, then perhaps we might prompt more people to buy tickets, promote people to see the value in what we do and therefore start to advocate for us automatically. It isn’t about giving them our language but using theirs.
I don’t think that these suggestions are particularly difficult. But it does take a mind-shift away from how we currently operate, and we often don’t acknowledge that we are doing it. Promoting the public value of the arts by making an argument for the value of the arts as entertainment is something that we cannot afford not to do.