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