Australian Theatre Forum: Audience Activations

by Jane

Griffin Theatre's thousand wooden spoons around Sydney: a viral momentum.

Who are our audiences?  How to we connect with them?  How do we grow them? How do we talk to them?

At Activating Audiences, we were given four very different takes on growing these audiences, and what it means to really connect with an audience beyond an exchange of money for tickets and spending an hour or two together in the dark.

The four people who spoke are trying to connect and activate with different audiences, and through that expand the people they are talking to.

Sam Strong talked about Between The Lines, “a venture that puts events and activities around [their] core events”, which are the four or five theatre works Griffin Theatre Company produces a year.  Bring different types of art into their theatre, and bringing parts of their work and audience interactions out of the theatre, Griffin has seen a measurable increase in interaction with the company – both online and in seats.  “Different art forms equals different audiences.”

One of the ways the company has done this over the past couple of years has been changing the nature of the idea around marketing: “Not seeing marketing as this necessary evil you have to put up with when you’re making your art, but discovering the art in your marketing.”

For Kyle Morrison and Yirra Yaakin, “it’s the community you want in the theatre, it’s your community you want to talk to, it’s your community you want to connect with.”  Kyle told us of “one of the most beautiful moments [he’s] ever had in the theatre”: performing with the company he is now artists director of when he was nineteen, he saw two young Aboriginal girls with a school group in the audience, and he delivered one of his lines in their language directly too them.  They were the only two people in the audience who laughed, and “they were there, they we with us, they were following the community.  It really was the most beautiful point in my theatrical career.”

He spoke of how work the company makes is for an Aboriginal community, telling their stories, but how this can lead to connections into the wider community: “getting those audiences into “middle class” theatre; and getting those middle class audiences into theatres about Aboriginal work.”

Yirra Yakkin's Waltzing the Wilarra

Kristine Landon-Smith was kind enough to come in “like a bullet” from Tamasha in the UK, speaking about her company which creates work by, with, and for the Indian and Pakistani communities in the UK.  She says “audience activation is about quality and representation.”  Creating work for a community which has traditionally been overlooked in our monocultural theatres, Tamasha has found audiences which act in a very a-typical way: they buy the highest priced ticket, they think nothing of travelling, and they would often go in groups of ten or more.  “Once you start offering particular product which draws a particular audience, the whole ecology begins to change.”

While Kristine and Tamasha have created works that have done 90% box office, have received awards, and been the starting place of actors who have gone on to have incredible careers, Kristine spoke of the horrible racism the company has encountered through the critics.  “Traditional white critics,” she said, ” don’t have the frame of reference, or they don’t want to have the right frame of reference to understand the work, and so that blocks me from a wider audience.”

Tamasha's Strictly Dandia

Steve Mayhew from Country Arts SA spoke of the communities and artists he works with in regional South Australia, and in particular works which have a high degree of audience iteration or participation.  These works aren’t a traditional theatre, but they take place in cars playing CDs, in a bus tour utilising SMS and facebook.  One work he spoke about was I’m Still Here Parts I-V, where an artist with a disability from Murrary Bridge worked with a collection of other artists in the window of a shopfront.  Talking about audiences, Steve said “I don’t think it’s ‘for’ or ‘to’, it’s ‘with’.”  With the small regional areas in SA, with the biggest centre Mount Gambier with a population of around 24,000 people, Steve said it is how you work with different communities, bring people in or making connections. He eagerly looks forward to the National Broadband Network, which he says will “change the communities, allowing them to pump out work from their own area.”

These four people and companies all spoke about audiences and work in different ways, their companies are incredibly distinct from each other, but in the end it was all about connections.  Kyle said “We’re actually there to actively engage, to actually have an active conversation with someone.”