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Kate Champion in rehearsal with cast members from Force Majeure’s The Age I’m In Kate Champion in rehearsal with cast members from Force Majeure’s The Age I’m In
photo Lisa Tomasetti
THERE IS SOMETHING IN THE AIR IN AUSTRALIA CONCERNING AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT. THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL FOR THE ARTS’ PUBLICATION OF “MORE THAN BUMS ON SEATS: AUSTRALIAN PARTICIPATION IN THE ARTS,” IN MARCH THIS YEAR, PICKED UP ON A DESIRE FOR MORE PROFOUND ENGAGEMENT WITH THE ARTS FROM AUDIENCES ACROSS THE NATION.

Arts Queensland’s bold Coming to a Stage Near You strategy for performing arts touring, launched in 2009, combined with its Regional Stages partnership with the Australia Council, is pioneering a ‘demand-driven’ model for regional touring. And the Roadwork performing arts consortium which I reported on in “Australian Dance, Unseen at Home” (RT95 is supporting a 12-venue national touring circuit for “adventurous” dance and theatre productions.

I spoke to John Baylis, Associate Producer at Performing Lines, to better understand whether this ‘push’ for two contemporary performance productions per annum through the network was going to be met with a ‘pull’ from their audiences. Baylis responded, “Having established the network and sent our first production out [Force Majeure’s The Age I’m In], the next challenge is to make sure that tours are successful locally. We do not want tiny audiences and for venues to lose confidence in the audience appeal of adventurous work.” He spoke about the Roadwork Audience Engagement Plan, recently commissioned from freelance consultant Angharad Wynne-Jones, who ran innovative audience engagement projects during her directorship of the LIFT festival in London, 2004-2008. For Roadwork, her brief was to create a long-term audience engagement plan which would take the $60,000 the Australia Council funding makes available for marketing each year and leverage it into a powerful and sustainable program of activities for the venues to tailor and share.

Baylis described how network members had been enthused by the 2009 Australian Performing Arts Centres Association (APACA) conference at which American consultant Alan Brown of Wolf Brown talked about his study of the impacts of live performance and his vision for a new language and methodology for evaluating arts activities. Brown’s “Assessing the Intrinsic Impact of a Live Performance” investigates the impact of an entire arts system, the cumulative impacts or ‘value footprint’ of an institution on its community and the impacts of a single performance on an individual. In a private workshop for the Roadwork venue managers, Brown was able to elaborate upon the practical implications of his discoveries. The presenters were keen to put his ideas into action and soon after agreed to tour Lucy Guerin Inc’s Untrained, a production with huge potential for audience development due to its integration of two non-professional local ‘performers’ in many of the venues in which it is presented.

Wynne-Jones’ plan is also influenced by US thinker, Diane E Ragsdale, whose address to the Arts Marketing Association of the UK, “The Excellence Barrier”, makes pithy warnings such as “Don’t conflate Money or Attendance with Impact” and recommendations which include “Let people in on the action” and “Be a concierge: filter and make recommendations.” Wynne-Jones writes “For engagement to happen, significant behaviour change (from production, presenting and consumption to engagement) needs to occur in artists, presenters and audiences, including more engagement with artists before the work is created; more entry points and interactivity options for audience members to self-manage their experience and to connect with each other as a social network; and for the audience to be regarded by presenters and artists as collaborators in the experience.”

Wynne-Jones cites an initiative from one of her other areas of activism, climate change (specifically the Castlemaine 500 project) to illustrate her philosophy for change. “One of the most effective ways to change behaviour has been identified as being involved in small groups, taking actions and supporting one another in that action and sharing reflections and learnings (as opposed to mass marketing educational campaigns or policy directives).” Wynne-Jones began the formulation of her plan by consulting six performing arts companies who have all toured regionally with some degree of success. PVI Collective, Urban Theatre Projects, Force Majeure, Lucy Guerin Inc, Version 1.0 and Back to Back displayed an eagerness to embrace her ideas and to invest their resources in audience engagement activities. John Baylis, Stephen Champion (Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre), Kar Chalmers (Performing Lines, previously with the Old Fitzroy Theatre) and Rick Heath (Push Management) added their perspectives. Aware that the venues in the consortium have diverse resources and needs, the plan offers a menu of possibilities. Having voted upon their preferred recommendations, the consortium members will meet in May 2010 to decide which of the favoured initiatives will be implemented.

Many of the proposals in the plan require no financial investment, although there is always a degree of people power involved, from artists, venues and the community. Local artists are often engaged as intermediaries between the touring companies and the community. Strategies that segment and target community groups are not innovative in themselves, yet the plan is novel in its structured commitment to engaging with these groups with long-term consistency and respect for their authority in local matters. Quirky proposals include a suggestion that venues host a dinner with the “big or talkative cheese in town for the company on the pre-tour road trip.” Another suggests, “Local audience members and artists take the company members on a guided tour of the hidden secrets of the town (best op shops, swimming spot, graffiti, bar meal etc).” More obvious ideas about workshops and post-show talks are given impact by the underlying principal that the company visits each venue with sufficient lead time to begin the process of engagement with the eventual production, and that the groundwork for these interactions is laid and maintained by the venue. An “engagement coordinator” position in each venue is recommended and comprehensive strategies for evaluating the success of the initiatives and sharing results as a network run throughout the plan.

The Roadwork consortium presenters have responded positively to the plan and many have expressed their appreciation of the opportunity to spend face to face time discussing these matters together. Several of the venues have already begun this process of deepening their interaction with audiences. At Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Simon Hinton’s team films vox pops in the foyer on opening nights, posting the videos of audience reactions to the show on YouTube. Lewis Jones of The Empire Theatre in Toowoomba has been using Arts Queensland’s Regional Stages funds to support an extensive program of workshops with touring companies. Anne-Marie Heath of the Civic Theatre in Wagga Wagga has engaged with Bangarra Dance Theatre in a week of workshops culminating in a community dress rehearsal for the local Indigenous community and educators.

While there are reservations amongst some about the plan’s many social networking recommendations or the resources required to implement certain ideas, there are also suggestions that indicate a second stage of investment in this process will be welcome. The presenters are interested in longer term relationships with artists and many are keen to explore three to five year residencies. In Queensland, with its new democratic model of audience-driven programming, Lewis Jones says, “Should we be looking at a deeper strategy where we are proactively seeking works that resonate with our regional audiences? Or even better are created in a regional area?"

These responses to the Roadwork Audience Engagement Plan indicate that presenters are as invested in animating their venues and engaging their audiences in profound arts experiences as artists are in creating them.

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 13

© Sophie Travers; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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