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

Penny Rivlin: The Cultural Values of Digging

Thursday, 28th November 2013 marked the end of a government-sponsored national campaign, The Big Dig – a year-long initiative that aimed to promote a culture of ‘giving’ through urban community garden projects organized around food growing (www.bigdig.org).  One of our four case studies, The Big Dig is representative of organized garden projects that aim to regenerate cities, spaces and communities.  Through our review of the existing literature, we know that there is nothing especially innovative about organized modes of participatory engagement via digging. What interests us about The Big Dig, however, are the ways in which it seeks to generate impact and value through attaching voluntarism to the idea of digging as gifting. Supporting the development of new and embryonic urban growing spaces, The Big Dig’s launch statement placed particular emphasis on capturing volunteers from constituencies that are ‘traditionally’ disengaged, as a means of improving local wellbeing and community connections, as well as reducing levels of of ‘anti-social behaviour’. Oriented to the conceptual coordinates of the coalition government’s Big Society ethos, this policy intervention is based on the premise that the giving of one’s time and labour via green gardening holds transformative potential for the self, the social, and local environments. If recruitment to The Big Dig is considered as a measure of cultural values of digging across the UK, then the project’s closing summary indicates its (re)emergence: all targets for volunteer and social action opportunities were exceeded (albeit ‘traditionally’ disengaged recruits constituted a modest 1,900 people), suggesting that the values of ‘gifting’ has some cultural purchase in contemporary Britain.

Our project, Cultural Values of Digging explores the ways in which cultural values circulating around digging – as an orchestrating node for the mobilization of diverse agendas – traverse the realms of everyday life, activism and policy. It seeks to establish evidence of cultural values through attention to embodied enactments of digging as everyday life or way of life(style) practices; the role of, and the processes by which, different media technologies and practices are implicated; and mediations and uses of digging/land-use histories and heritage(s) for modes of ethical relating and value-making in the present. With an empirical focus on the North West of England, we are conducting three case studies of digging that have developed over the past three years.  Our Big Dig study examines the specificities of digging cultures and practices in an urban community allotment in Greater Manchester.  Employing in-depth interviewing with volunteer diggers’, alongside textual analyses of the diggers’ engagements with digital media platforms, we are evaluating the extent to which The Big Dig project is a significant indicator of emergent cultural values of digging, and specifically, how such values are expressed, shaped and realized in online and offline contexts.

Reproducing these methods across the two other case studies, we are examining the cultural significance of digging as a metaphor or symbolic connotator in contexts of heritagization; a wartime garden experiment, and a public event.  An example of an online-offline green-living experiment (Marres, 2009), the wartime garden study examines a hetero-nuclear family’s attachment to the WWII ‘dig for victory’ campaign, and their recreation of the gardening broadcaster Mr Middleton’s prescriptions for year-round food self-sufficiency. Whilst cognate wartime slogans have been articulated to a range of consumerist and political agendas in recent years, our interest in the wartime gardeners resides in their nostalgic re-valorization of a past moment of austerity and security as response to the present conjuncture of eco-austerity. Charting and synchronising their experiences of wartime gardening across a wide range of social media platforms, the wartime gardeners reach out to all heterogeneous communities of diggers (many of whom can consume digging culture only at the level of fantasy), gifting online visitors with comprehensive planting schemes re-worked from Middleton’s original manuals; advice on accessing heritage seeds; and vintage themed food growing films and collages.  Here, we are beginning to understand the ways in which the discursivity of heritage digging informs the constitution of cultural values of (digital) sharing; anti-consumerism; resistance (to the commercialization of the food system and to new austerity); and to familial and community resilience.

In the context of the public event, we are similarly establishing evidence for cultural values of sharing, individual and community resilience, and collective resistance in relation to the heritage elements of digging. This case study focuses on the Wigan Diggers’ Festival – an annual, free event in central Wigan (2011-2013. See http://wigandiggersfestival.org/).  The Festival reinvigorates and celebrates the political agency of Wigan born radical Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76) and the Diggers’ movement (1649-51) as symbolic resource for the expression and dissemination of a collection of political ideals circulating around interrelated issues of social justice and the redistribution of land (the ‘commons’), and ‘common’ resources and services – now effectively ‘enclosed’ through privatization and deregulation.  Disembedding Winstanley from land rights and food growing issues, the Wigan Diggers’ harness the historicity of the 17th century diggers’ narrative to express dissent at current welfare austerity measures, neoliberal modes of governance, and for the reclamation and renewal of working class politics and values. Like The Big Dig and the wartime gardeners, the Festival actively disseminates its political ideals in online and offline contexts.  Drawing together virtual and embodied communities into ‘digging’ spaces and places, these case studies diversely express, shape, renew and enact cultural values of digging in dynamic and productive ways.

 

Penny Rivlin is the Research Associate on The Cultural Values of Digging project, a six-month interdisciplinary project led by Farida Vis (University of Sheffield), which includes three further co-investigators: Peter Jackson (Sheffield), Erinma Ochu (University of Manchester) and Andrew Miles (University of Manchester). Our project website can be found here: http://culturalvaluesofdigging.wordpress.com/