Those Darn Youth: Perspectives on Programming and Venues in Adelaide

by Jane

“To share an audience we need to grow it, but perhaps it’s our fault because we’re focusing too much on the target audience, and maybe by focusing on that target audience we’re neglecting everyone else, and it’s maybe our fault that other people don’t come to theatre.”

Sitting in the audience at Thursday’s In Conversation With: Building arts audiences collaboratively not competitively, (follow through for recording of the event) at the Adelaide Festival Centre and feeling increasingly disillusioned by the four panelists – Wicked producer John Frost, Kate Gould from the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Pamela Foulkes from the State Theatre Company, and Ian Scobie from Arts Projects Australia – this comment came out of the audience.  I feel it was perhaps the most astute observation of the whole debate: if you feel you don’t have the audience, maybe we need to look at where that audience is coming from.

But what was the answer from the stage?  A (shockingly) resounding “No.”

Followed by a “We’ve spent money on that.”

Well, I think that is exactly the point.

I say I sat there feeling increasingly disillusioned, because it has never been more obvious to me that when these organisations say their core audience is “well-educated, professional women, over the age of 45” (you would really expect the core audience to be over 45, by virtue of the fact it’s just a much larger bracket than Under 30, and 30-45, no?), that not only are these companies quite happy with that being their core audience, they have absolutely no want to broaden their horizons outside of this.  If other people want to come to these shows, fantastic, but they’re certainly not going to – gasp – look at a different programming model to look at what else, and thus who else, they can look to the table.

“We’ve spent money on that.”

They’ve done their Market Research, they’ve increased their marketing budgets, and the “great unwashed” (an actual reference from Frost) still don’t want to come.

I’m not going to say anything here more perceptive than Ianto Ware over on the Renew Adelaide blog: It’s The Content, Stupid. (The whole post is actually brilliant – make sure you read it if you haven’t already.)

 I made a comment on twitter that the reason so many young people are seeing Wicked is because it’s not about middle-aged men.  I don’t for a moment believe that Wicked’s entire success is due to it being a story about young women, friendship, finding and being honest to yourself, but I do believe that these are major contributing factors to its global popularity amongst teenage girls, and teenage girls are a major contributing factor to its status as a global phenomenon.

In short: I guarantee you more teenage girls are seeing Wicked then are seeing Jersey Boys, and the fact that this is even a statement I am writing down is a tad ridiculous.

Beyond the multi-million dollar megaplex musical, it comes down to the same core issue: different people want to see different work.  That’s fine.  That’s great!  But no amount of marketing is going to replace that gap if the content is always created for the “well-educated, professional women, over the age of 45”, and not, say, The Youth with “no concentration span”, who “don’t read anymore”, who “don’t actually listen to the spoken word.”  In short, they’re not interested, so why bother?

Why bother?  Because we are interested.  We’re interested in seeing good work done well, but we are also very interested in the topic the panel was supposed to be about – collaboration – rather than what it came to be about – competition.  Despite our lack of attention span, we’ve managed to do things like get university degrees, work full time, work on fifty projects on the outside, and see and actively participate to art and art culture in this city.  And from this, we’re interested in art that is about us, or excites us, or which makes us think and feel and want to collaborate more.

Organisations like the Adelaide Fringe and Format prove that there are audiences from a large cross-section of the community for a large variety of work.  It’s not so much about creating new audiences, but creating work for existing audiences.

Then, when the conversation inevitably moves to the lack of venues, or more specifically, the lack of venues with cushioned seating, nice toilets, and air-conditioning, this is when I start to get truly worried.  Because I worry that the argument that people won’t see art if the seats aren’t comfortable leads to the argument that people won’t see art if the art isn’t comfortable.

And where are we left then?

A conversation about lack of venues certainly should happen – and is actively happening within the state’s independent theatre sector.  But, just for now, rather than constricting our thinking not only by age and education of the audience, but also by the proscenium of the stage, shouldn’t we think of work that can be created and presented in the spaces we do have?

Even if they don’t have air conditioning.

Talking about collaboration, wouldn’t it be great to see Renew Adelaide collaborate with the Festival of Arts to bring out large scale, site specific works which have been developed to work in abandoned buildings?  Because we have many of those.

(In particular, British theatre company Punchdrunk have been getting outstanding notices for their installation theatre work Sleep No More.  Whoever arranges it so I can see their work gets rave reviews for a year.)

Just as I think organisations could be creating and presenting work which are relevant to more people in this city; couldn’t we be creating and presenting work which is relevant to the particulars of the city itself?  Rather than only looking at what we don’t have, why don’t we look at what we do?

I don’t want to only see work about young women any more than I only want to see work about middle-aged men.   I do enjoy theatre that has the benefits of a cushioned seat and air-conditioning.  But to have a panel presented where anything that fell outside of their norm was completely shut down was bizarre and frustrating.

I want to see and hear ideas across a spectrum: particularly if you are talking about topics of collaboration and competition.   I’m disappointed there wasn’t more diversity on the panel.  I wish the AFC had the narcissism to put someone from that organisation on the panel: because I think they are a large organisation actually programming across a broad spectrum of work and audiences.  They’ve even programmed a site-specific work to Adelaide’s streets this year!  In winter!

Collaboration rather than competition is the primary ethic among most artists and arts organisations.  As Tricia Walton from Carclew said from the audience, for many people it isn’t just done for  financial reasons, but philosophical ones, too.  Why weren’t the people who are actively doing this invited to be on the panel?

“To share an audience, we need to grow it”: now, can we get on that, and stop our bickering?

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