Promoting Culturally Diverse Theatre Whilst Welcoming New Audiences
By Hardish Virk
Engaging and sustaining new audiences is more than just going to see a play as it’s about a process: from print engagement to venue experience. Nothing happens in isolation and the whole experience can have an impact on the audiences’ decision to return.
For example, if the venue experience has been positive but an audience did not enjoy the play, then it’s still likely the audience will return to the venue to see a different play. If they enjoyed the play but had a poor venue experience, then the chances of them returning to the same venue are low to them never returning. This is particularly relevant to new audiences.
The following observations, comments and recommendations are based on conversations with hundreds (even thousands) of staff and audiences over a 25-year period of audience development and community engagement work.
Some examples of poor venue experience have included using words like ‘exotic’ to promote African or South Asian performance arts, which has led to complaints of using stereotypical or even colonial language; images of religious figures to sell a show without being aware of the cultural context in which these images exist (e.g. Hindu gods); security or front of house staff assuming someone’s life or personality based on the clothes they wear or the language they speak.
Fortunately, majority of the venues I have worked with are keen to develop their organisations ability to communicate more effectively with new audiences whilst making their spaces more accessible. However, more often training or development tends to be focused on the specific department that is going to work directly with the new audience. The problem with this scenario is that it is not an organisational approach to development and change so when the relevant personalities leave the organisation they also leave with the skills and knowledge which often means re-inventing the wheel. This avoids the organisation as a whole to take responsibility and operate in a unified manner therefore again leaving individuals to drive this forward sometimes with limited resources and capacity.
In this blog I want to share key points designed to support arts organisations, companies and artists on how best to engage new audiences whilst offering them an enjoyable venue experience.
MEETING THE CREATIVES & PLANNING MARKETING CAMPAIGNS
The creative process should inform the communications (marketing, PR and audience development). Meeting with the creative team (of the production you will be promoting) from the outset is a great opportunity to learn about the background and themes making it easier to extract key messages which become the heart of the communications work. One of the unique aspects of Black Theatre Live (BTL) has been the opportunity for marketing and audience development staff to meet with the creative teams behind the BTL tours. Hearing Cathy Tyson speaking passionately about her role in She Called Me Mother and Ambreen Razia recite what inspired her to write The Diary of a Hounslow Girl whilst being able to ask questions about audiences, themes and messages has been an invaluable learning process.
STREET TEAMS & OUTREACH MARKETING
If the aim is to develop new audiences, then it’s important to learn about the new audience beyond the census and mosaic insights through front line activity. I have been doing community engagement (in some context for over twenty years) and even to this day I join my street teams across the country to speak with the public as this is the only way I can be authentic in the audience development work that I deliver. Having a conversation with the very people you are trying to reach out to in their safe spaces gives you a unique perspective and understanding which is invaluable when putting together an audience development strategy. The benefits of this work can also lead to recruiting potential ambassadors, brokering links with key networkers, identifying partners for mutually beneficial promotional work and recruiting participants for educational projects.
LANGUAGE & IMAGERY
Language and imagery is important when promoting a culturally diverse piece of work. Words like ‘exotic’, fonts similar in style to Hindi whilst spelling a word in English and images depicting an angry Black man reinforce stereotypes and tend to be lazy and short cuts to articulating culturally diverse theatre. The promotional materials (offline and online) can be as creative and quality driven as the work on stage but to achieve this you need access to the source material which can be the contents of a marketing pack but ideally it’s also a conversation with the creative team allowing you access to a diverse range of themes and messages supporting a more exciting design process with a unique result which is authentic to the piece and accessible to a new audience.
Recently I managed an audience development campaign for a touring Somali theatre production. There was a debate about the best ways of making the print accessible to the Somali community and one suggestion was to use the flag colours but it was identified that there are two flags (Somaliland or Somalia) so in order to engage the wider Somali community it was agreed not to reference neither one of the flags. This was only possible as there was a conversation with those who were aware of the historical and political context of the Somaliland and Somalia flags. Being aware of what is appropriate and therefore accessible means learning about that community and this can be achieved through some desk research work but it is again about conversations with the community that you are interested in developing as new audiences. Traditionally community ambassadors have been useful human resources who have advised arts organisations as well as acted as advocates so having this kind of model can be beneficial to an arts organisation particularly during a consultancy period.
INVESTING IN COMMUNITY RELATIONSHIPS TO LAST
Going back into the heart of the community that you want to develop as a new audience is also the best way of promoting culturally diverse theatre. It’s an opportunity to speak with businesses, community groups and other local services and where possible with their customers and service users. Outreach distribution using street teams continues to be the focus of my work on the BTL tours. This not only personalises the distribution campaign but it’s also an opportunity to evaluate the promotional materials and possibly broker partnerships (e.g. businesses that can act as advocates; community networkers who can act as ambassadors).
FRONTLINE STAFF AND NEW AUDIENCES
As a new experience to the venue the interaction between audience and front of house is integral. I’ve had conversations with audiences who have said that certain behaviours, assumptions and settings have made it difficult for them to go onto enjoying the performance as the initial experience stays with them throughout the visit reinforcing a belief that the venue or theatre in general is not for them.
A few things to remember:
- all audiences want to be treated with respect and therefore the same – one shouldn’t feel less valued than the other;
- clear instructions and listen carefully particularly with those whose first language is not English as these small gestures ensure all audiences feel valued;
- avoid treating audiences different based on a preconceived notion of a particular community of people. One example of this was when an audience member told me that security in an arts centre challenged her as she was wearing a hijab.
- I always explain to front of house staff that this is about following good practise ensuring all audiences feel welcome and valued but to achieve this, there sometimes needs be a tailored approach as all audiences are not the same.
DO’S & DON'TS
DO develop a cross-departmental shared learning opportunity as more often than not there is a great deal of community engagement knowledge and experience that exists within the organisation;
DON’T broker community partnerships for one-off projects as these can be perceived as token gestures so try and develop a strategy for sustainable relationships;
DO monitor and evaluate progress so that there is a clear map of development which can be measured for success as well as planning how this informs sustainability.
Even though each point above can be effective in isolation – they are far more effective when one compliments the other as they are designed to follow a journey that links them together. The point is that real audience development and sustainability is only possible if there is an organisational whole commitment to strategically supporting this, as one off incentives, under resourced projects and leaving this work to isolated departments means that the wheel is reinvented time and time again.
Audience development is central to the ambitions of Black Theatre Live and therefore the partner organisations so it will be interesting to measure and evaluate change at each venue at the end of the three-year period.