Janelle Reinelt: Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution

What do people ‘do’ with their experiences? How do they process them? ‘Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’ approaches the challenging call of the Cultural Value Project by searching for the network of associations that audiences activate when they attend the theatre. Partnering with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, and the Plymouth Drum, we set out to trace the pattern of connections established by spectators after seeing a show. We ask what they remember shortly afterward, and in two months’ time, as well as asking some subjects about a show they saw over a year ago. We also ask whether they communicated about their experience to anybody, and if so, to whom and using what medium (face-to-face? Facebook? Phone?). We ask if the shows connect to anything going on in the world or in their private lives. And we ask what value such experiences have to our subjects, and why.

Nine productions have been chosen for the study ranging from a classic, Hamlet, to a new adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall (both at the RSC); from a new play such as David Greig’s The Events (at the Young Vic) to an experimental work from the 1927 company called The Animals and Children Took to the Streets (at the Plymouth Drum). These evenings in the theatre are rich and variegated enough to provoke a panoply of reactions from research subjects. They respond to questionnaires and interviews, and participate in creative workshops that go beyond fact-finding to stimulate imaginative associations between shows and the people who have seen them.

While this research is well underway (in October and into early November, seven of the shows have been surveyed and some interviews and workshops have taken place), we are not yet in a position to predict substantive outcomes. What we have seen is that many of our subjects (self-selected in response to an invitation to participate) are passionate about their theatre experiences and often extremely clear about assigning value to this activity. After viewing Mark Ravenhill’s Candide, one subject wrote: ‘I like musical comedies, but I also like the big subjects to be tackled and not shirked, and they don’t get much bigger than the ones mentioned [in Candide]—life choices, genetic manipulation etc.’ Many subjects communicate with partners or other family members, friends or bartenders; often face-to-face, but using social media as well. The project intends to harvest additional data from social media through establishing Twitter searches and Google Alerts to capture blog and comment-box mentions of our performances, and to use Facebook’s search facilities to capture interactions on the social network. These will provide an additional data base for our analyses.

Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution also hopes to illuminate the role of memory and time-based processes in cultural value. To ask, for example, how people remember—in images? key lines? themes or story-lines?—is to begin to understand what we retain from experiences. In asking subjects about shows they saw a year ago, we are hoping to follow the traces of theatrical experience as they become amalgamated into an individual’s life, and to query what, if anything, remains in consciousness.

In undertaking this project, the British Theatre Consortium is following up on previous research into audiences and spectatorship. Working always with both the artistic and academic communities, BTC has run four sector-wide conferences and conducted a study of new writing 2003-2009 for Arts Council England (2010). In response to John Knell and Matthew Taylor’s RSA pamphlet, ‘Arts Funding, Austerity and the Big Society’, we partnered with The Royal Society of Arts (2012) for a round table entitled ‘From Spectatorship to Engagement’ comprising 25 invited artists, scholars, and public figures to discuss different models of capturing public value. BTC has also recently partnered with Manchester Metropolitan University and The Library Theatre in a study titled ‘The Spirit of Theatre’. Focusing on a production of Mother Courage, and on the associations and memories of audiences about The Library Theatre, we investigated and analysed the meaning and effect of the work of the Library Theatre in Manchester, using oral history and creative research techniques in addition to surveys and interviews. This study has been a kind of pilot project for ‘Theatre Spectatorship and Value Attribution’ with which it shares the emphasis on memory and processual analysis.

As we move into the analytic phase of our project, we are especially interested in the way the micro-practices of everyday life generate or negate cultural value. We seek evidence of value attribution at the corpuscular level of individual activity within a public context.

Our research team has started a blog of personal memories and observations triggered by working on the project. See our posts and more about BTC at http://britishtheatreconference.co.uk/

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