Home > Uncategorized > Is content the issue?

Is content the issue?

Creative New Zealand’s recently issued document, on the Arts Leadership Investment Programme, has raised a good deal of discussion within the theatre community. As well as the concerns about funding for the likes of Centrepoint,  and The Fortune, there is the understandable soul-searching from practitioners and interested parties as to the nature and value of our work. The theatre is looking at itself in the mirror and once again searching for it’s identity. The conversation has begun on John Smythe’s theatreview.org and also at a forum organised by Downstage and hosted by artistic director Hilary Beaton. I was interested enough to participate in both spaces.

The questions raised, in part by the CNZ document but essentially always under consideration, are many and broad. I don’t consider myself qualified to comment on all of them, by any stretch. I do, however, want to beat the drum I’ve begun carrying since the discussions began. At least if I beat it here, those who think my priorities are all wrong or I’m sadly misguided can very easily ignore me.

What I’ve come to notice is how, from the CNZ level down, the conversation has been focussed on content – on the artwork. CNZ’s document names, (page 25), the ‘key roles in arts infrastructure’ for theatre as:

“Creating, presenting and distributing consistently high-quality New Zealand theatre,”

This provoked some discussion about the nature of ‘quality’, and who gets to define it. While this is an important point, I’ve come to believe that it’s, in practice, not the greatest issue. Here’s what I believe we need to look at closely:

“Creating, presenting and distributing consistently high-quality New Zealand theatre,”

Frankly, quality content is not an issue, and never has been. The creativity and talent is in the industry. New Zealand can and does produce quality scripts, productions, acting, designs, etc. It has done for years. We don’t need additional incentives or funding benchmarks around quality of content. Our content is great. Our distribution is not.

Put simply – our struggle is not making good theatre; our struggle is getting good audiences.

I’ve lost count of how many productions I’ve been involved in which didn’t reach the audiences they’ve deserved. The productions were successful, the seasons were not.

Let me be clear; this is not about pure numbers, B’s on S’s. There is and should be a range of work which appeals to a range of audiences, some of which are larger and broader than others. I’m talking about audiences reached/potential audience for each individual show. Some people in town may not enjoy a night watching The Tragedy of Lefty the Shrimp Fisherman – but did all of those who would have come? Did all of them even know about it??

This is not to attack publicity or marketing people either. Rather it’s about empowering them, putting them closer to the centre of what goes on. Someone once said:

All business is driven by either innovation or marketing – everything else is a cost.

In the theatre we seem to have bulk innovation and insufficient marketing. I think, as we face increasing competition for attention, marketing needs to come to the fore. When creating work, who the audience will be, what they will enjoy about it and how we tell them as much needs to enter the discussion right at the top.

Waiting for Godot may have supposedly gone unappreciated at first (although Wikipedia suggests that’s debatable), but the fact it was later recognised as one of the greatest works of the 20th Century was of use to nobody but Samuel Beckett.

By the way, I don’t pretend I’m like John the Baptist here, bringing revelations from the desert no-one’s ever thought of before. Obviously many, many people in the theatre, and the theatres themselves have cottoned on. Audience development positions are multiplying, social media is being enthusiastically taken up. I’d like to see it more clearly identified from CNZ, however. I’d like to see the ‘distribution’ element highlighted and incentivised. I’d like to see significant funding specifically tied to marketing development and innovation. It’s the old ‘teach a man to fish’ trope…

And I like seeing creators themselves taking this aspect of the game seriously. Too often when bad houses occur the response from inside is to point to external out-of-our-hands factors (the rugby, the weather, the recession) or to talk of tinkering with the content. I’d like to hear more talk of what lessons can be learned regarding communicating the value of shows to audiences – more specific segmentation and targeting, more innovative communication channels and more application of the vast reserves of creativity within the industry to this end.

A stand-out that I’ve encountered is talking with James Ashcroft of Taki Rua Theatre. Their undertaking to record in full short interviews with audience members after performances is a great piece of forward thinking. Most importantly, this is not an exercise in fishing for effusive quotes for publicity; audiences are questioned in some depth, and their responses are pro-actively fed back into the development of both the work in question and future work. It’s simple, it’s brilliant and it’s open minded. It’s an acknowledgement that we ought not to be isolated ‘artistes’ creating works that we then invite audiences to witness, but instead partners in an ongoing creative conversation, a two-way conversation that can lead both viewer and viewed to places neither of them could’ve gone to alone.


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  1. July 26, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    A great post, and one I need to re-read at some point in order to truly come to grips with. I like your mention of the problematisation of ‘quality’ – and I am interested in seeing you perhaps flesh out your ideas on that in the future.

    Distribution, finding an audience, and moreover, finding the RIGHT audience, can be a huge issue for theatre, especially low-budget theatre, where money has a tendency to go into things like costume, sets, theatre hireage, with marketing coming a distant last.

    Having said that, I think that at times people who are making theatre do not always know who will and who won’t be their audience. A short anecdote – I was involved in directing a play at Auckland Uni about 10 years ago, and for my sins, I was indulgent enough to decide to do it in the original Italian. It was/is a very physical comedy, and although there is a lot of genius in the language, we felt that those who only had passable Italian could still get a lot of pleasure from the comedy. The play was Dario Fo’s Morte Accidentale di un Anarchico (Accidental Death of an Anarchist), and on about the 3rd or 4th night, the front row was filled with a large group of punks. My co-director and I spoke to the audience before each show, and talking to them before the play, we discovered they didn’t speak a word of Italian, and had purely come drawn by the idea of anarchy. I was understandably nervous – they did not come across as a theatre crowd, even less so a play that they would not understand a single word of. But the night went off without a hitch, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

    A few days later, I was approached by a guy in the supermarket, who identified himself as part of that group from the audience. We talked for 5-10 minutes, and although he had a few questions about some of the details of the play, he said that he had really enjoyed it, and that it had been his first experience ever of seeing a play. Ignoring how sad it is that someone can hit their early 20s and have never seen a play before – this is not someone I would have ever targeted my marketing to, even if I’d known him, met him, I’m not sure I would have pimped my show to him. Maybe it’s just me, just my own closed-mindedness, but maybe it is harder to identify an audience for your own production when you are involved, and so have a series of preconceptions about what your play is, and who it’s for.

    • July 26, 2010 at 2:32 pm

      Great points, Mark. You did happen to get that guy without specific targetting, though!

      I have a punk story also – about five young ones in the front row of Mary Stuart during the International festival. We were surprised to see them – this was after all a translation of a very old German play about English royalty – but they loved it. Violence, intrigue, strong people kicking ass. They were clapping – hard – putting actual palm-stinging effort into it, and I was virtually accosted by them in the street afterwards, their enthusiasm boiling over. It was choice.

      Maybe we’re all missing the punk market…

  2. July 26, 2010 at 5:26 pm

    Just in…

    John McDavitt of CNZ has responded on theatreview.org.nz to some of the questions raised – http://www.theatreview.org.nz/forum/topic.php?id=890#2910

    He points to some areas in the CNZ RFO documents that reference audience development and community engagement best practice indicators (page 32-34 of the document linked in the blog post above). This is great to see. Hopefully RFOs will come up with some great, innovative programmes to fulfil these areas and bolster their applications.

    RFOs – I’m happy to consult…I have given this plenty of thought!

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