What really matters: what our audiences actually think and how they feel. Reticence to change over the years has been the catalyst for new project, BRAW. Read about it’s conception and whether it may or may not lead us to what really matters.
Written by – Jo McLean, CEO The Touring Network
Recently, I discovered papers relating to a 2008 Touring Network promoter event which asked the same questions of touring that we are still asking today – namely around audience development and audience engagement. In the intervening 10 years very little appears to have changed. Perhaps because historically our business models have not been reliant on earned income, there appears to have been a reticence to a change in approach in thinking about what really matters – what our audiences actually think and how they feel.
It’s time to ask different questions, and in finding those answers, create a space for experimentation, risk-taking and courage.
Enter BRAW, a project devised by The Touring Network (Highlands & Islands) and Lisa Baxter of The Experience Business to do exactly that. It’s a 2-year programme of open ended enquiry which requires artists and promoters to stretch their practice with the aim of re-imagining rural touring – all with the audiences perspective at its heart.
Why is The Touring Network doing this?
Work is often made and distributed in silos, creating barriers between artist, audience, promoter and place. Our aim is to find ways of dissolving those barriers. We want to understand if work is more relevant to audiences in rural Scotland when it is influenced by conversations and environments which those audiences connect to; exploring alternatives to urban-generated work and then understanding if this relevance and artistic vibrancy actually contributes to more fulfilling experiences for everybody.
Lisa Baxter and I met during the Creative Scotland Touring review in 2016, where I was participating in the focus group which she was facilitating. I immediately saw common interests; a curiosity and desire about healthier touring, but more than this – to ensure that this was achieved through the work’s vibrancy and relevance – thus creating more value for audiences. It’s this desire which fuelled the development of BRAW and now, its delivery.
How are we doing this?
We’re working with 3 devising artists supported by 3 companies, 3 promoter communities and an animateur to develop new shows which respond to people and place in 3 very different contexts: the Highland and island community of Eigg, the bustling Highland town of Forres, and the end-of-road lochside village that is Lochgoilhead in Argyll. .
Using design thinking, the approach was developed to create value for a specific type of audience (in this case Rural Scotland). We kicked off the programme in January 2018 with a blustery 4 day residential at Cove Park, where the crucial point was for artists and promoters to develop sensibilities for each others’ perspective and practice. This level of empathy and understanding is critical in underpinning the work which is being created.
Artists are now being encouraged to develop their practice in the experimental space this project provides; each has visited their allocated community to understand better its uniqueness, be that human or otherwise. And they will continue to develop deeper relationships with each place and the people who live there. BRAW invites them to respond to this in any way they feel is appropriate. There are no rules.
During the devising stage the artists will test the work twice with their community to refine and develop it further, providing a crucial point of learning for both artists and companies. Towards the end of this stage they will be invited to produce a statement of artistic intentionality for the work; that is, the rationale behind the choices they made in response to their experience of people and place.
Post performance and subsequent tour, we will research audience responses to the work and explore the degree to which their experience of the work aligned with the artistic intention, creating a valuable artistic feedback loop and stimulus for artistic reflection and growth.
Because BRAW requires courage for artists to embrace new perspectives and practices with communities, we have designed the programme with an ‘animateur’ who supports artists to understand and engage with their specific audience’s propensity to engage with the work. Ongoing dialogue, questioning and relationships are critical here, the result being a new mode of artistic production centred on relevance and impact.
This approach represents an exciting way of connecting with existing and potentially new audiences. It offers collaborative working between arts professionals, promoters and communities; creating another language to help make stories and understand needs, developing audience appetite and informing professional practice.
The concept of place influencing the making of work is not new, but concentrating on engaging through art other than with art helps us to identify stories and processes that more authentically connect audiences to performance, rather than focusing on performance per se, and to measure the extent to which the artistic intention is met by the audience.
We believe that by creating these connections, conversations will happen which enable existing and (potentially) new audiences to feel confident and interested in attending events they may normally not attend. In building their confidence and developing a language and understanding of theatre or dance, we want to explore if this will encourage them to attend other events.
What will be the outcomes?
We don’t know!
The beauty of the funding from The Paul Hamlyn Foundation is that it allows us to explore ideas and take risks. Of course, we have hopes that we will create more fulfilling experiences for artists and audiences. Through our promoter membership, there will be scope to follow the attendance behaviour of the communities after the programme which will help us understand whether these experiences have had an impact on the future attendance of those audiences.
In acknowledging any longer term affects, we will be able to talk strategically to major funders including Creative Scotland, about our outcomes, future developments and the potential impact on the wider sector.
An artist-led symposium style event at the end of the project in September 2019 will explore the outcomes of the project and the effect it had on the artists, audiences and promoters. We would like to extend the invitation to all artists currently making work in the UK, to discuss approaches like this – the benefits, drawbacks and outcomes – and examine the future for this process. We’ll be writing an update of the programme as it progresses and extending invitations to the symposium early next year.
Follow the project here www.thetouringnetwork.com/braw/