What is the Future of the Audience?

Audience at the Festival Theatre

When we first moved to Edinburgh in 2007, I anxiously anticipated the arrival of the world renowned Edinburgh Festival. As a scholar of events management, I had studied the history, development and impacts of the Edinburgh Festival for nearly four decades. Now, I would soon be able to experience it in person.

Finally, the box office opened and I was a frequent visitor. The Edinburgh Festival is not only the largest presenter of cultural programmes in the world, in addition, it also features the widest variety of cultural entertainment choices. During my first Edinburgh Festival, within a three day period, I attended the Marinksy Opera of Russia, the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey and The Batsheva Dance Theatre of Israel. There are only a few places in the world where in any given week you could experience such a phenomenal quality and a range of programming without boarding multiple airline flights.

My wife noticed that our credit card bills were rapidly reflecting my enthusiasm as I was frequently visited the box office during a short period of time. It appeared to my wife that I simply could not pass the box office without purchasing a ticket.

Finally, she expressed her concerns to me and said that I might just have an obsession with attending all of these performances. I tried to reassure her that I was seeking help for my obsession and that I was doing this by first going through a psychological process known as group therapy. She asked “What group are you attending to deal with your specific problem?” I simply smiled and answered.

The audience.

As a former performer and also a long time member of the audience, I realize that no work of performing art really achieves its greatest potential until it is shared with a group of people known collectively as the audience. This group may arrive having lived very different lives, however, by the end of the performance there is often a sense of shared appreciation, understanding and emotional trajectory that may only happen when in a setting where strangers sit in a dark room and invest their heads and hearts with the hope of sharing a satisfying outcome, together.

Therefore, the recent fears being raised by the Corona Virus pandemic trouble me because they seem to take aim right at the heart of potentially destroying the audience experience itself.

For example, one London producer recently suggested that the show will indeed go on, however, each and every audience member will need to have their temperature taken before moving from the lobby to the theatre to insure they are not going to infect others. I believe these type of measures are an extreme reaction for what many believe to be an extraordinary time.

Rather than immediately overtly change or even diminish the culture of theatre going by perhaps frightening the audience, one way forward is to first seek the authoritative guidance of health professionals and then consult with a sample of audience members to determine where their comfort level will be in terms of motivating their return to performing arts venues.

I predict that in the near to medium term (one to five years), performing arts events may be smaller in terms of audience capacity. This will primarily be due to new guidance and regulations by local governments.

I further predict, that if audience attendance is reduced due to the desired audience comfort level and government guidance and potential regulations, then ticket prices may simultaneously rise. This would naturally occur if operating costs remain stable and there is a smaller pool of revenue to cover these costs. However, one way to mitigate this would be to encourage government to provide greater support to subsidize some tickets costs to promote accessibility for all audience members. Still another way to spread the costs of tickets is to offer differentiated pricing where certain audience members pay more and receive additional benefits for their additional investment.

The major question of our time is how may we insure that the audience returns to their seats and over time they return in larger and larger numbers?

Firstly, I believe we must involve the audience in determining the best way forward. We must consult with them regarding seating capacity, seating arrangement, ticket prices and health and safety procedures and checks prior to attending the performance.

Secondly, venue staff need to use external communications to reassure their audience that they are being looked after well, before, during and following the performance. The venue staff do not need to explain every minute detail of their plans, however, they do need to communicate their commitment to the audience to provide a healthy and safe experience while enjoying the performance.

Thirdly and finally, we must also be prepared for the reality that this business interuption is one that is unprecedented in our life times in terms of global scale.

I fully acknowledge that it is difficult to predict or plan how best to insure that the audience will confidently return to their seats anytime soon. However, we do know that throughout human history, as evidenced by previous catastrophic conditions of war, economic depression and other shocks, the audience has inevitably and always returned. They return because their insatiable desire to be entertained, informed, and inspired somehow overcomes their worst fears. The ultimate question will be how do we now reasure audiences to reassemble for these purposes and outcomes.

I am confident that my therapeutic group, the audience, will find their way home sooner or later. Perhaps their immediate path may be through gathering with family and cohabitants in their home during social isolation around a Netflix film or viewing a live cultural programme through the internet. The audience, individually and collectively, has always been a very clever source of intelligence in terms of how to best engage them in the future to promote sustained growth.

Now is the time to carefully consult with the audience so that when they do return, venues not only meet, but as they have often done so well in the past, exceed their expectations throughout the future.

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