(c) For Mountain, Sand & Sea, Warren Orchard

ESSAY Kirsty Sedgman

NWR Issue 113

The Ape on the Rock

In taxis and nightclubs. On railway bridges and in libraries. Walking through a British military range in the Brecon Beacons, or investigating a terraced house near Snowdon. From March 2010 to March the following year, theatre audiences could be spotted throughout the nation exploring the everyday places and extraordinary landscapes of Wales.

That was the inaugural year of National Theatre Wales. Launched in 2009 as an English-language national theatre company, NTW still work out of their base office in Cardiff yet have remained emphatically peripatetic, making performances in unusual spaces and setting out to ‘engage communities’ by embedding local people within the theatre-making pro- cess. Their opening season carried across this mobile playfulness into the audience invitation. Together with NTW we were encouraged to roam: to walk over beaches and up mountains; to journey through urban and rural spaces; to explore place through performance, and performance through place; and, in doing so, to piece together our own ideas about the nation. More specifically: NTW asked us to ask not what Wales means, but what it means to us.

As a PhD researcher at Aberystwyth University I spent that year studying audiences’ responses to NTW’s productions. I was interested in how different people reacted to this new company at the moment of its formation. How did they see the role of NTW within the nation? What was its place in their lives? And how did they understand the intricate lines NTW was drawing between people, performance, and place?

The findings from this project later went into my book Locating the Audience (Intellect Books), in which I explained how people found value in their experiences of NTW’s productions. This was reviewed in Review 7 (newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=1182, April 2016 e-edition) – and in many ways found wanting. Sophie Baggott’s review suggested that interesting insights were swamped by swathes of academic theory, with the focus on statistics and linguistics making it a rather difficult read. Well here’s what I say to you, Sophie Baggott: you are right.

For complicated reasons, Locating the Audience always had to be an academic book. It’s therefore written in a style I like to call ‘academicese’, unpicking the minutiae of audiences’ responses to theatrical events and going deeply into methodology in a way that only 100 people on the planet might enjoy. I’m not proud of it. This was a pragmatic choice: for better or worse it’s what universities require, and as an unemployed early- career researcher I needed to play the game. But here’s the curious thing. To other academics my writing often seems too accessible. This is because it focuses on people’s lived experiences of art rather than relying on abstract philosophical theories. For some people it’s too dense; for others, not enough.

Why is this significant? Because it’s a timely example of precisely what my research set out to show. Our assessments (of books, art, theatre) are totally bound up in our subject positions – who we are, where we come from, the kinds of things we know, and so on. How we judge something depends on the systems of criteria we use to judge it.

This might sound obvious, but actually it’s something the study of theatre still hasn’t fully understood. In 2009, Helen Freshwater’s book Theatre & Audience (Palgrave Macmillan) confronted performance scholars for listening only to academics and critics. This means that we tend to talk about theatrical events as if they’re essentially ‘good’, ‘bad’, or something in between: as if our opinions are unquestionably the right ones. On the contrary, it is pretty clear that actually one person’s delight is another’s disapproval. People like things in different ways and for different reasons, but only certain judgments are considered worthy of regard. Instead of elevating only the voices of experts, Freshwater called for a research approach that asks ‘ordinary’ audience members – those with ‘no professional stake’ in theatre – what they make of a performance.

That’s where I come in. As an audience researcher I talk to audiences rather than about them. Instead of boiling the value of art down to a set of expert commentaries, I draw together a range of reactions from diverse subject positions and identify patterns in how audiences talk. The aim is always to map complexity rather than reducing it, unveiling the connections between people’s understandings of cultural institutions, their senses of self-identity, and their ideas about community, location, and nation. These things come into sharper focus when considered through the lens of Welsh national theatre history. Their 2009 launch made NTW the culmination of decades of debates about the need – or otherwise – for an English-speaking national theatre in Wales. Where should it be located? How and for whom should it operate? A useful summary can be found in Anwen Jones’ book, National Theatres in Context (UWP), so I won’t go into these ideas here. But it’s worth understanding the ferocity of these arguments, which tended to question why Wales needed a national theatre in the first place. After all, performance isn’t what Wales does, it’s what it [:is] – through eisteddfodau, chapel choristry, cerdd dant: activities such as singing and oratory have been embedded in the life of the nation. Wouldn’t a central institution risk imposing imperial cultural models on a place with an already rich performance heritage? And how can such a multifaceted nation be represented by a single organisation without belying its complexity?

In New Welsh Review 85 (Autumn 2009), founding NTW artistic director John E McGrath’s article ‘Rapid Response’ began to address these concerns. The challenge was to find ways of telling stories about the nation without claiming to ‘represent’ it: asking what being in Wales means to people without asserting specific notions of national identity, talking with people rather than for them. This sometimes feels like ‘dancing into a minefield’, McGrath said. His answer? Perhaps to start with place. Through their theatrical map of Wales, NTW’s launch year included thirteen productions in thirteen locations, often made in collaboration with local communities and produced by various creative teams. Practitioners from Mike Pearson to Michael Sheen asked what different places mean to different people, and then fed the answers into their productions in ever-questioning ways.

But what about when audiences themselves come into an event with specific ideas about location and how it should be represented? My research explored what happens when people’s expectations either concurred or conflicted with practitioners’ intentions. It did so via around 800 questionnaires and 40 interviews, which together sought to capture information about both audiences’ pre-performance hopes and their post-show responses. And it found a number of interesting things.

Firstly, people tended to rate NTW’s production very highly. My post-show questionnaire asked people to talk about one of the thirteen shows that made up NTW’s launch year – and of all the responses I received, two-thirds thought the event they’d seen was ‘Excellent’. Of the remaining third, almost everyone rated the production ‘Good’, with only a handful choosing the options ‘Average’ or ‘Poor’. Only four people out of 558 post-show questionnaires rated it ‘Very Poor’. However, in and amongst this overall positivity it was possible to identify some instances of ambivalence. So what I wanted to know was this. What might make some people consider a performance an unqualified success where others found it problematic?

The first task was to identify differences between the thirteen shows themselves. Without getting bogged down in data, it’s important to point out here that the majority of responses came from three case-study productions: For Mountain, Sand & Sea (June/July 2010), The Persians (August 2010), and Outdoors (February 2011–12). For that reason Locating the Audience doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive survey of NTW’s theatrical yield. Nonetheless, what the broader scope of my questionnaire offered was a useful chance to read across a range of events and to identify certain differences: both in the kinds of audiences they attracted, and the ways people reacted to them. Why is this important? Because until recently, we’ve tended to assume that ‘cultural value’ is something we can measure. Just think about the words we use: impact, benefit, outcome. These all suggest that value is something audiences carry with them when they leave the theatre, inflexible and fixed, when actually there’s evidence to suggest that our experiences change as we continue to think and talk about them. Value, in other words, is not an end-point. It’s a process. My job is to listen to audiences: to pay attention as they reach for words to describe the ineffable, to hear not just what they say but how they say it, and to consider how people’s reactions are inflected by the subject positions they take up. By doing this, I believe we can get a sense of the meaning- making process in action.

For example, see the varying responses I captured to For Mountain, Sand & Sea and The Persians. These were very different kinds of experience: the first a walking tour of Barmouth punctuated by snippets of performance art; the second a modern adaptation of Aeschylus’ ancient Greek text staged on Sennybridge military range in the Brecon Beacons. I gathered around the same number of questionnaires for each (196 and 211 respectively), and yet the tenor of responses was markedly dissimilar. One of the things I asked audiences to do was to choose up to three ‘orientations’ from a list of thirteen. Including options like ‘Academic Interest’, ‘Curiosity’, and ‘Dragged Along!’, these asked people to think about how their motivations for attending connected with their senses of self. While over half of The Persians’ audiences thought of themselves as a ‘Theatre Lover’, attendees of For Mountain, Sand & Sea were more likely to choose ‘Welsh Life & Culture’ or ‘Supporter of Local Events’. What this told me was that something interesting might be underpinning audiences’ prior expectations. In other words: was For Mountain, Sand & Sea expected to be a particularly ‘local’ or ‘Welsh cultural’ event, and what might these categories actually mean in practice? And how did The Persians stack up as a specific piece of theatre for people who love the artform in general?

The Persians was almost unanimously successful, with 80% rating it ‘Excellent’ compared to 64% of For Mountain, Sand & Sea’s respondents. By themselves these numbers are admittedly pretty meaningless: after all, my ‘Excellent’ may well be someone else’s ‘Average’. So what’s really interesting is why The Persians was so popular. How did people articulate the value of this event? It was clear that most people saw The Persians as having little national cultural relevance. Comments like ‘Good drama should be relevant to people in every country’ and ‘Relevant is an entirely bogus notion in relation to theatre. Just do good stuff’ show how comfortable these audiences were in judging what makes theatre ‘good’ (or otherwise). Here, NTW’s capacity to engage with ideas of local identity was less important than the ability of theatre generally to tap into a kind of essential humanity. Instead, what audiences appreciated was the sense that The Persians had looked beyond Wales to the ‘universal’.

In comparison, For Mountain, Sand & Sea’s audiences often attended precisely because they wanted to see local history played out on a national stage. It’s important here to remember that in many ways this was a show about Barmouth. Its curator, Marc Rees, spent an admirable amount of time in town during the months beforehand, running what he called Story Shops, in which local residents were invited to come and share their memories and images of Barmouth. This information was then used as creative inspiration for the team of international performance artists, who, together with a number of local volunteers, staged aspects of local history in unusual spaces. Audiences were guided up hills, around alley- ways, over bridges and beaches, into a nightclub and through Barmouth’s Sailors’ Institute, with snatches of performance spilling around them as they walked. Some of these extracts dealt with local stories didactically, as performers thoroughly narrated the history of certain characters or places. Others were summarised in a programme handed out at the end of the show. However, quite a lot of this three-hour journey dealt with Bar- mouth’s identity in fragmentary, abbreviated, or abstruse ways. Take, for instance, the moment where a performer in an ape mask climbed a rock, brandishing a bone slow-motion to the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme. Or another scene in which two performers recited text from the 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death. These deliberately ambiguous nods to moments in Barmouth’s history (such as Darwin’s walks around town when writing On the Origin of Species, or a WWII plane crash) were not always under- stood by audiences. In other words, while The Persians was praised for not being locally focused or ‘inward looking’, this was precisely what many audience members anticipated from For Mountain, Sand & Sea.

So what? Well, when people expressed disappointment that the ‘relevance’ or ‘significance’ of scenes to Barmouth had been deliberately under-explained, they tended to be those with little experience of this kind of avant-garde event. A cluster of audience members came precisely to see known stories performed in understandable ways. Meanwhile, For Mountain, Sand & Sea invited audiences to play around with fragments of history and create their own picture from the pieces. When places with interesting histories were skirted over, or when they were asked to salute with lilos to the Mawddach Monster, confusion was therefore often coloured by a sense that maybe they weren’t the right kind of person to judge. Here’s where my focus on audience talk came in handy. In certain interviews I identified a circling kind of rhetoric, which brought people with significant local knowledge to the brink of criticising For Mountain, Sand & Sea – and back again. For example, one person moved from sharing an interesting story about Barmouth to the suggestion that ‘perhaps they didn’t want to portray that, perhaps they were trying to portray something else, the theatre, I don’t know’. What does this tell us? That when local expertise conflicts with NTW’s professional theatrical expertise, it often loses the battle.

This is important because of what it says about audiences more generally. People who don’t see themselves as ‘theatre experts’ (to borrow a term from one of my respondents) may be attracted to new experiences through local engagement – but risk alienation when their ideas of place become destabilised. Moreover, my research showed how easy it is for audiences to disconfirm their own responses. This all boils down to a question about legitimacy. Who believes they have the right to speak about theatre and in what ways? So when I closed Locating the Audience by urging theatre-makers to ‘listen to your audiences’, I wanted to stop inadvertently feeding into the sense that certain people’s responses do not ‘count’, or at least count less than others. Because as NTW’s work has continued to show us, theatre isn’t a one-way street. It’s an ongoing conversation with nation, in which everyone is invited to take part.


Kirsty Sedgman’s book, Locating the Audience: How People Found Value in National Theatre Wales, was published earlier this year by Intellect. As a lecturer and British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bristol, she is currently undertaking a three-year research project studying regional theatre audiences. kirstysedgman.com


       


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