Joshua Edelman: The Value of Amateur, Subsidised and Commercial Theatre for Tyneside’s Audiences

Dr Joshua Edelman: What is theatre worth to Tyneside?
Creativeworks London blog.
What can theatre do for a city? Why should its citizens value it, and make time and space for it within their lives? Why should democratic governments, charged with nurturing and developing not just an economy but a society, spend their limited resources on it? And how do these values differ between theatrical forms, between cities, between modes of production and between individuals? Our project seeks to address these questions through a qualitative and quantitative study of the theatrical audience of contemporary Newcastle, Gateshead, and the surrounding Tyneside region: what draws them to the theatre, what values they take from it, and what effect this has on their lives, and the different values different sorts of theatre hold.

Especially for a six-month project, this may seem impossibly broad. The value of the arts for society has been so thoroughly debated over the last 50 years—indeed, over the last 2500 years—that these questions may seem unanswerable at best, and ignorant at worst. We have two defences against the charge of naiveté. First, while the relationship between arts and society has been a major debate within aesthetic philosophy since Plato (see the useful intellectual history in Belfiore & Bennett’s 2013 The Social Value of the Arts), very often this discussion remains at the level of theory, or at best, refers only to a few extraordinary examples of artistic achievement. Very rarely has this philosophical debate come into full dialogue with good data on the reality of the living art world: not just exceptional masterpieces, but the day-to-day reality of the social practice of making and attending to the arts. Second, theatre makes a poor proxy for the other arts. The theatre has always been a bit of a problem for aesthetic thinking; too commercial, too collaborative, too entertaining, too low-class, it has been seen as more akin to circuses for the masses (or rituals for the faithful) than poetry for the discerning reader. Claims to the value of the arts as an autonomous sphere are much harder to maintain for a business like the theatre where public opinion and the public purse are ever-present forces.

How can we make a small contribution to the addressing of these very large questions? Our methods have been developed by the Project on European theatre Systems (known as STEP), of which both the project’s research assistant, Dr Maja Šorli, and I are members. STEP is a group of theatre sociologists from seven countries around Europe. It is led by Dutch arts sociologist Hans van Maanen. Building out of the work our first book, Global Changes/Local Stages (2009), STEP has developed a set of metrics to gauge the values that theatre has for audiences, and a common questionnaire and focus group technique to measure them. The values these metrics try to capture are based on the post-Kantian theories of the social value of the arts, including those of George Dickie, Arthur Danto, Pierre Bourdieu, Niklaus Luhmann, Bruno Latour, Nathalie Heinich and others, as described in van Maanen’s book How to Study Art Worlds (2009). By sharing a common set of metrics and measuring technique, we can create a data set that is easier to replicate and much more comparable. Using survey and focus group techniques to measure the value of the experience of the theatre is difficult. But using these techniques to compare the value of different theatrical experiences is much easier. We can, for instance, see how audience members value different theatrical genres differently, or how people from different demographics value their experiences differently, and so on. We can also compare the theatre of different cities. So far, STEP members have used these methods in Aarhus, Denmark; Tartu, Estonia; Maribor, Slovenia; Berne, Switzerland; Groningen, the Netherlands and Debrecen, Hungary. Together, these projects are assembling the largest single data set on the audience experience of theatre in contemporary Europe. The initial results of these international comparisons have now been published in the journal Amfiteater, which will be online by the end of the year.

On Tyneside, we worked in partnership with most of the local theatre community, and in particular the Empty Space, a valuable theatre resource organization for the local area. We complied over 1600 surveys and conducted 12 focus groups. A particular focus of our Tyneside work is the different values that amateur, commercial and subsidized theatre hold for their audiences. From the perspective of what an audience takes from it, what makes subsidized, not-for-profit theatre different from its amateur and commercial cousins? What are the values that amateur theatre realizes, and are they more like that of the professional theatre or more like that of a local football club? Answers to these questions would be fascinating to arts sociologists, of course, but they will also help those who organize, promote and fund theatrical work in this country to have a better understanding of the effect they actually have on audiences so that they can better advocate for it.

Our initial findings showed that we could identify two relevant sets of values that theatre had for its audiences. One set of values (which we called the I Component, for impressiveness, as it contained aspects of the audience’s emotional and aesthetic admiration for the performance) was consistent across commercial and subsidised theatre; audience members saw it in all kinds of professional theatre (though not to the same extent in amateur theatre). Another set (which we called the C Component, as it contained ways in which the performance posed an emotional, aesthetic or intellectual challenge to its audience) seemed to mark a remarkably clear separation between commercial and subsidised theatre. Subsidised theatre audiences embraced these values, while commercial theatre audiences did not. More detailed results have now been published in our final report, which specifies these two components in considerable detail. But our analysis raises questions as well, particularly about amateur theatre. Though amateur theatre did not score as well on the I Factor as its professional counterparts, this did not seem to matter to audiences so much. It had a particular draw — a joy in watching the arduous, impassioned labour of people ‘just like us’ — that seemed both potent and compelling, even when audience members knew no one in the cast. We are talking with the Empty Space and our amateur theatre colleagues on Tyneside about conducting a follow-up project to learn more about this area.
Joshua Edelman is senior lecturer in the Department of Contemporary Arts, Manchester Metropolitan University

Matt Brennan: The Cultural Value of Live Music

The Cultural Value of Live Music. Credit: The Queens Hall

The Cultural Value of Live Music. Credit: The Queens Hall

I have a dual background as a musician and an academic, and my interest in live music is therefore two-fold. As a musician, I always have made more money from performing live than from selling records (even when counting physical and digital sales combined). It’s not an unusual experience – many professional musicians have traditionally relied on income from live performance and teaching to pay their bills – but it also maps onto an important broader economic shift in the music industries over the last decade: since 2008, British consumers have spent more money on concert tickets than they have on recorded music. Meanwhile, concert ticket prices have risen dramatically over the past decade. The economic value of live music is clear, yet too often the value of culture is reduced to its economic impact. So what about the cultural value of live music?

This Cultural Value project explores this question by focusing on a single venue – the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. Built in 1823, and in use as a music venue since 1979, the Queen’s Hall is a multi-genre music venue based close to Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It is host to a wide range of musical events ranging from pop gigs, through jazz shows to full orchestral performances. At each of these shows different forms of cultural value are being promoted, performed and received. Our project examines the different forms of cultural value that are in evidence via a detailed analysis of the promotion, performance and reception of various musical events.

A central area of inquiry here concerns the ways in which different forms of musical value are articulated and perceived across musical genres. We have now chosen our case study concerts, which represent a cross-section of the diverse musical activity taking place at the Queen’s Hall. What makes a gig with Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with Branford Marsalis different from the intimate folk music of Heidi Talbot? And how does a Bach concert performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra compare to the left-of-centre art rock of cult pop band They Might Be Giants?

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There are many different kinds of people who are pulled into the orbit of the case study concerts listed above. On the supply side we have the promoters, managers, agents, production crew, and the act. There are also intermediaries, the venue and its staff ranging from management and marketing to ushers, bar staff, security, and catering. And then there is the audience, including friends of the artists, paying punters, and journalists assigned to review the show. How do each of these groups articulate the cultural value of the concert they are attending, and what can we learn by comparing their answers across genres and different models of promotion? As academics, our team want to make sense of how these seemingly disparate musical worlds operate; what, if anything, they may share by performing in the same venue; and finally, and what they might learn from one another.

Cornel Sandvoss: Fandom, Participatory Culture and Cultural Value – A Critical Review

When Bob Dylan took the stage at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 17th May 1966 a single shout from the audience marked what The Guardian recently described as one of the 50 key events in the history of rock music: “Judas!”. In this one-word-hackle a disgruntled fan summoned up the disillusionment, disappointment and frustration that had been growing among many in the folk music movement. Dylan by swapping his acoustic guitar for a Stratocaster had betrayed their cause, betrayed what they what they believed in, and disregarded what folk enthusiasts deemed as good and worthy music and art. The fan’s dismissive assessment of Dylan’s venture into rock triggered a typically defiant response by Dylan who after calling the hackler a liar advised his band to “play it fucking loud”.

This episode, prominently employed by Martin Scorsese in the closing sequence of his 2005 documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, illustrates that it is not only scholars who reflect on questions of cultural and aesthetic value. Far from being indiscriminating consumers, it is often those most committed to a given text – be it a novel, film, television show, music genre, artist or performer – who are the most immediate, and sometimes fiercest, critics. Fans bring a set of specific, occasionally rigid expectations to the object of their fandom. Indeed, as a number of recent contributions to Fan Studies have suggested, when fans engage with and evaluate texts, they embark on practices that closely resemble those employed by scholars in the arts and humanities in their assessments of value: they study histories and contexts, trace motifs and explore intertextuality and ultimately construct hierarchies of value. And when I say “they”, I mean “us” – as for it is near impossible to escape that particular affective reading position which marks being a fan in the contemporary communicative and cultural environment of omnipresent (digital) media.

The case of the disappointed Bob Dylan fan usefully reminds us that many contemporary fan practices which we associate with rise of digital media, such as interactivity and participation, date back to the heydays of post-war popular culture and mass communication: the folk music movement was marked by a participatory ethos; live performances, in folk music but also across the spectrum of art and popular culture, have long allowed fans to interact with their favourite artists and performers, sometimes expressing their appreciation, on other occasions making their disapproval heard. Yet, if being a fan was an option in an environment in which culture and art were commonly encountered through a handful of mass media (print, film, television, radio) and live performances (in themselves the oldest of all forms mass communication), it is increasingly becoming a necessity in the age of digital media. Confronted with the plethora of accessible culture in and through digital media, having an affective attachment to given texts and genres is an almost necessary premise for manoeuvring the sheer abundance of potential available works of art, culture and entertainment alike. With so many works and texts at our fingertips, our preferences and likes inevitably structure our cultural engagements more than ever before.

Bob Dylan is as good an example as any to illustrate the expansive range of critical evaluations a given artist or performer can attract across different stages of his career and from fan group to fan group. He does serves as a useful illustration of the degree to which value is constituted in the process of reception of art and culture, much beyond the original literary focus of Reception Aesthetics and the Constance School in particular. Acknowledging the importance of processes of reception in the construction of value by fans in their engagements with their object of fandom is thus the premise of this project. However, in offering a comprehensive review of the many empirical, qualitative studies of fan cultures across the spectrum of popular and high culture, this project also explores the fundamental impact of the emergence of participatory culture, and its interplay with technological change, on the generation and assessment of cultural value by fans.

In seeking to map the impact of participatory culture on processes of reception, this project will not only critically review the burgeoning field of fan studies but juxtapose its emphasis on use and reception (and hence agency) with object (structure) focused conceptual approaches to reception in literary theory and beyond. Among the manifold and complex implications that arise out of the interplay of technological change, fan practices and value, two broad themes stand out: the blurring boundaries between production and consumption in fandom as fans utilise the wider availability and accessibility of means of production and distribution of fan art and comment that digital media facilitate, and secondly, the changing nature of the “textual boundaries” of art and culture in a participatory age. Both are neatly illustrated by the example of Bob Dylan fandom. Recorded and redistributed by fans via video sharing portals such as You Tube, the “Judas”-hackle has decades later become one of many virtual spaces for fans’ debates about Dylan’s work, which in its paratextual function has become part of the ‘transmedia narrative’ that is Bob Dylan. The same channels of distributions are also employed by fans in sharing and evaluating their many covers, mash-ups and remixes of Dylan’s music, Dylan-focused fan art as well as blogs, comments and other reflections on his work and the person behind it – thereby contextualising reception as much as creating user generated culture and art. As this project seeks to critically assess the consequences of fandom in the field of arts, culture and entertainment as well as its wider, social, cultural, political and economic implications, it thus explores the transformations that digital media and participatory culture have fostered but also acknowledges important continuities in audienceship, reception and cultural value: much as at Dylan’s performance at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall nearly half a century ago, fandom has remained a site for contestations, interaction, and the articulation of cultural and aesthetic valuations.