Has anybody seen the brilliant episode of South Park that features The Underpants Gnomes? They’re tiny creatures who go into people’s bedrooms at night and steal their pants. The South Park boys have to do a school project about economics and business, so they visit The Underpants Gnomes for advice. That’s when the Gnomes share their strategic master plan. It goes like this:
[Here, Gareth played a short clip of The Underpants Gnomes’ plan. You can find a version of this on Vimeo]
In the independent theatre sector, we can relate to The Underpants Gnomes more than we’d like to admit. We all have interesting work we want to make. This is Phase 1: Our Commodity. The Gnomes have underpants; we have theatre.
And like the Gnomes, we can all see where we want to end up. This is Phase 3: The Return On That Commodity. The Gnomes want profit. I imagine a more sustainable and resilient ecology is what we would all aim for.
It’s that middle bit we seem to struggle with. But without defining Phase 2, we’re a little bit screwed.
Back in 2010, Phil and I felt a little bit screwed. We were both struggling to find any joy from running Little Earthquake. We’d had some success. Those who saw our worked really enjoyed it, and Arts Council England had been very kind to us. But no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t book any tours, we were still living with our parents, and desperately running out of tactics to stall those inevitable conversations about getting proper jobs. So, after eight long years of trying to make a go of it, we did what felt most rational at the time: we ran away to the other side of the world.
And there, in Melbourne Australia, I met Nick Nickolas.
Nick is one of eight magicians who busk on the Southbank of the Yarra River. Every day, rain or shine, they take it in turns to perform their 45-minute acts. Nick’s act begins with him approaching one or two people who are passing by and performing a simple coin trick for them. Within 15 minutes, he has usually attracted crowds of 500 people or more.
At the end of each performance Nick shows his empty hat to the crowd and says: “Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ve had as much fun as I have today, can I ask that you show your appreciation by throwing some money in the hat. You see, the government don’t pay us to be here… You do. If I’ve made you smile, pop in $5, if I’ve made you laugh, put in ten. If you have any constructive criticism you’d like to make, write it on the back of a $20 bill and leave it with me”.
Those magicians worked on this “pay what you think it’s worth” model for every single show. No-one was obliged to pay anything. Audience members could simple walk away if they wanted. And of course some did. But usually the magicians’ hats were overflowing with 5, 10, 20 and even $50 notes.
I spent far too much time during our year Down Under studying those magicians. They even invited me to attempt my own street show. I drew a crowd of seven people and made $16. Clearly I had a lot to learn from this group of artists. Without the support of a venue, a marketing team, or government subsidy, they had achieved our Phase 3: a sustainable and resilient ecology for themselves.
And they achieved it by clearly defining what their Phase 2 would be:
Put Audiences On Top. That’s what those magicians focused on day after day and show after show. They knew if they all shared the same goal of putting their audiences’ experience above all else, Phase 3 would look after itself.
Now, nobody can say being audience focused is a radical idea. We all know that without an audience of some kind, theatre ceases to exist. Putting stuff on for other people to watch, or facilitating events for people to participate in, is our reason for being. And yet, I wonder how many of us really think deeply and consistently enough about audiences during every single decision we make. We may use phrases like “audience focused”, or “engaging hard to reach audiences” in funding applications (although, in my book, that second one should never be used) — but are we doing enough to follow through on these vague promises? I don’t think we can be.
Every year Little Earthquake works with over 150 students at Birmingham Conservatoire and at the University of Birmingham. At the start of every module, we ask how many of the students have seen a piece of theatre within the last six months — excluding shows that their mates are in. Usually, only one or two students raise their hands. When we prod a bit further and ask why they haven’t been to see anything, the reason is always the same: most of the theatre they’re exposed to is boring.
We’ve all sat through dull, self-indulgent work that makes us want to gouge our own eyeballs out with the spoon from our interval ice cream.
We all make or help to make theatre — and yet we totally know where they’re coming from. It’s like being stuck on a motorway, complaining about how bad the traffic is when you are the traffic! I’m bored by a good 75% of the theatre I see. We’ve all regretted sitting in the middle of a row and being unable to make a subtle retreat to the bar 45 minutes in. We’ve all sat through dull, self-indulgent work — often autobiographical — that makes us want to gouge our own eyeballs out with the spoon from our interval ice cream.
Being told that most theatre is boring by students paying to do a theatre degree should be a warning we all listen to. We can believe that theatre is great and important and should be publicly funded, but deep down we also know most of it genuinely isn’t good enough. And if we think that, how can we expect audiences to think any different?
The magicians in Melbourne were always given very clear signals if they weren’t putting their audience’s experience first. People would leave. In my case, they left in droves. But actually, how utterly brilliant is that? It’s the most useful feedback any artist can get. Every theatre in the world should have a sign above the door: “If you’re bored, you have our permission to leave during the performance as loudly as you can”. Let’s find ways of empowering our audiences to hold us to account a bit more. Feedback forms don’t cut it: after the performance, the damage is already done. Bring back throwing rotten vegetables, and we’d soon up our game.
Speculating on why young people will spend a fortune on trainers and not on going to the theatre, Peter Brook came to the conclusion that theatre has let a lot of people down over the years, and trainers haven’t. If we are to build a more sustainable and resilient future for our sector, we have to stop disappointing our audiences. They need to feel confident that the odds are stacked in favour of them having a great night out.
If we are to build a more sustainable and resilient future for our sector, we have to stop disappointing our audiences. They need to feel confident that the odds are stacked in favour of them having a great night out.
I’m sure some of you are thinking this is all well and good, but deep down, you believe we have a responsibility to create work with higher aspirations than simply entertaining people. I agree. But those two aspirations aren’t mutually exclusive. Empower the people you put your work in front of if you want to. Represent them. Challenge them. Infuriate them. Expose their hypocrisies. Involve them. Debate with them. Make them run from the room wanting to change the world. Do all of these things, but above all, do not bore them. And the easiest way to avoid boring them is to put the audience at the centre of the whole experience. Our art is for them, and them alone. I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say this, but a lot of artists today spend too much time masturbating on stage. No audience should be expected to give up their time and money to just watch you pleasing yourself.
But artists aren’t the only ones who have this crucial responsibility towards audiences. Every single person who helps an artist to put their work in front of other people must assess each and every decision they make against one simple criterion: is this putting our audience on top?
I hope I don’t offend anyone when I say this, but a lot of artists today spend too much time masturbating on stage. No audience should be expected to give up their time and money to just watch you pleasing yourself.
Is your programing team really serving your audiences, or are they really just serving their own tastes? And are you protecting your programmer’s time so they can do their job properly? Let them leave their desk, see as much work as possible, and talk face-to-face with artists. And when they are at their desk, are you making sure they reply to every single artist who emails them? I know this is a full time job in itself (hence why their time needs protecting) — but artists need programmers to engage with them and give honest feedback so they can grow and make better work for audiences.
If you don’t think their work is suitable for your venue, tell them, kindly but honestly, why you think that’s the case. Ignoring emails from a key stakeholder (and artists are stakeholders, too) wouldn’t be tolerated in any other sector, so why is it the norm in ours? It does nothing to build community or trust between artists and venues — and ultimately does nothing to serve audiences.
Are we sure that putting this work on this stage is the best place for audiences to see it? Maybe the local park would be better. Or the school up the road. If you make work for an audience on their terms, or their turf as it were, they might be more willing to start a dialogue with you. Eventually, they might even be willing to pay you a visit on your turf. As one young person in Manchester said to the wonderful Ruth Ibegbuna: “I’m not hard to reach: you just get on the number 11 bus”.
Are we investing too much money in developing new “emerging” talent rather than investing in so-called “mid career” artists, who (if you haven’t noticed) are a dying breed? Or, if you want to look at it another way, should we be nurturing Best Practice a bit more rather then Next Practice?
Are we sure our marketing campaigns are reaching the people we want to reach? The New Vic in Stoke discovered that grandparents, rather than parents, are more likely to introduce young people to theatre. But research also shows that many older people prefer not to be out after dark. So shouldn’t we rethink our traditional 7:30 evening starts to serve this audience better? This kind of understanding could transform an entire theatre culture, let alone a single marketing campaign.
These questions are just the tip of a very big iceberg, but they serve to illustrate the point. Everyday, when we sit down at our desks, or enter our rehearsal rooms, we need to ask, consciously and consistently: if we do this, is it putting our audience on top?
Public subsidy is amazing, isn’t it? We could always use more, but it’s important to remember that we’ve actually got it pretty good — Grantium aside. This funding can be our greatest ally in serving audiences, but it can also be a safety net we rely on far too often. The magicians in Melbourne had no subsidy whatsoever. They couldn’t survive more than a few weeks if audiences walked away without paying. But the lack of any safety net for them ensured they continually focused on the impact they were having on their audiences.
I’m not saying for one moment that we should get rid of — or give back — our funding to shock us into serving audiences better. But it’s worth considering how our attitude towards audiences might change if we didn’t have that money to cushion us quite so much.
It’s worth considering how our attitude towards audiences might change if we didn’t have [public subsidy] to cushion us quite so much.
On average, each of the eight busking magicians would perform their 45-minute act twice a day. When they weren’t performing themselves, they would go out and stand discreetly amongst the crowds watching the other magicians. They did this so that after the show they could feedback to those performers about the dynamics of their audience: the moments when they were most engaged, when kids got restless and pestered their parents to move on, the quiet comments between friends that the performer would otherwise never hear. The magicians would spent a good 75% of their day helping each other in this way. It was hugely generous, but ultimately it came down to self-preservation. They understood that by helping another performer create a better experience for their audience, it would ultimately result in that audience being more likely to return to see another performer on a different day. If that first act was poor, then the chances of someone from that audience coming back would be very low. It now makes total sense why they only let me perform one show on their pitch.
This philosophy of sharing responsibility for the impact we have on audiences is simple, and in relation to the independent theatre sector, very refreshing. It’s important to realise that when an artist puts their own ego above the experience of the audience, they aren’t only failing that audience, they are also failing the rest of us as well. It only takes one bad experience to put a first-time theatregoer off for life. Whenever we present work, we need to start looking a little further than the room we’re performing in to judge its true impact.
It only takes one bad experience to put a first-time theatregoer off for life. Whenever we present work, we need to start looking a little further than the room we’re performing in to judge its true impact.
There is one last lesson I’d like to share with you from those magicians. One last trick they had up their sleeve.
The conjurers working on that pitch had been doing magic for anywhere between six months and two decades. There was an unspoken rule among them that, when it came to putting audiences on top, everyone was equal. It might surprise you given his chosen career path as a busker, but Nick Nicholas is one of the most respected magicians in the world, and I was amazed to see an eighteen-year-old newbie giving him feedback on his performance from an audience’s perspective. I was even more amazed to see Nick’s eagerness to put that feedback into action during his next show.
As a sector, we collectively permit a massive imbalance of power. Today, we have a room filled with artists, producers, programmers, artistic directors, funders, and many others. I’m willing to bet that most, if not all, of the artists in the room feel that they have the least amount of power here.
I can’t speak for anyone but myself, so it’s worth taking a moment to consider what your vision of a Scale of Power would look like. Incidentally, some of you might be surprised that I haven’t put funders on top. It feels to me that venues hold the greatest power, because without them being prepared to take or support our work, our prospects of being supported or funded anywhere else are zilch.
I’m an artist, so I’m biased: but this makes no sense to me whatsoever. Going back to our three-phase business model, if theatre is our commodity, and the artists are the ones who make that theatre, surely artists should feel the most empowered?
If artists want to redress the power balance with the gatekeepers in our sector, that must begin with holding them to account and keeping them honest.
But artists are really good at encouraging this power imbalance. It’s almost masochistic. We want to be liked and we want our work to be programmed. So rather than rock the boat in public, we cling to each other and rant in private. But ranting only brings short relief. Artists should be supporting one another to lobby for a more equal slice of the power pie. Let’s call out the programmers who blank us in the street because they think we’re going to pester them about putting our work on, or the Artistic Director who emails to cancel our meeting with them an hour before it is due to happen. Our time is precious too and we’ve probably given up paid work to honor that meeting. Let’s bang on the door of our flagship venues and tell them that a lot of the work on their stages is financially wasteful, lacks imagination — and is boring. Let’s share knowledge about the touring venue far away who wants to cancel your show because they have only sold six tickets while your costly box of print is still sitting in their marketing cupboard. If artists want to redress the power balance with the gatekeepers in our sector, that must begin with holding them to account and keeping them honest when they’re not on the same page as us and not putting audiences on top.
But it cuts both ways. Us artists need to suck it up and be willing to hear the truth when our work is self-indulgent, too long, too slow — or just plain boring. We need to be braver in inviting genuine criticism from those gatekeepers, from our industry colleagues, and most importantly, our audiences. And here’s a thing: other theatre makers do not constitute a real audience. If we don’t stop performing to audiences largely made up of our mates and our peers, we’re going to implode.
And here’s a thing: other theatre makers do not constitute a real audience. If we don’t stop performing to audiences largely made up of our mates and our peers, we’re going to implode.
Things will only get better when every single one of us is more committed to change than we are to the way things operate now. At the moment, we’re in danger of reaching an impasse before we’ve figured out a solution.
But with our shared goal in place, the power balance could look more like this.
And as a potential missing jigsaw piece in The Underpants Gnomes’ three-phase business model, putting audiences on top feels like a very good one.
And if we can all commit to that, maybe we can pull off the greatest magic trick of all, and bring about the more sustainable and resilient ecology we all so desperately need.