Audience Research at TaPRA 2015

TaPRA 2015 was hosted by Worcester. Image by James Hetherington under Creative Commons licence.
TaPRA 2015 was hosted by Worcester. Image by James Hetherington under Creative Commons licence.

This year’s Theatre & Performance Research Association (TaPRA) conference was held between 8th and 10th September at Worcester University. Prior to every conference, I indulge in a quick scan through the abstracts to see how many empirical audience research studies I can find. This year I counted two, including my own work on Rimini Protokoll/National Theatre Wales’ Outdoors – the other was Evelyn O’Malley’s fascinating paper on audiences for outdoor Shakespeare. Turns out I’d missed Astrid Breel’s abstract on theatrical ‘agency’ as experienced by immersive theatre participants, which was also the subject of her recent Participations piece. Sadly, it just so happened that all three papers were scheduled at the same time, so I had to rely on long conversations with Astrid and Evelyn to get a sense of their content (and I’d strongly urge you to seek them out, too – they’re both fantastic researchers).

My own primary focus – indeed, the main focus of this network – is on empirical studies of live performance audiences: in other words, on research that seeks to capture both discursive and extra-discursive information about how actual people respond(ed) to performance events. This is in response to a particular need, as identified in our Participations intro, for a resource that brings together scholars from different disciplines, who work to gather evidence of audience responses rather than making unverifiable assumptions of affect or inflated claims of impact. But at a personal level, I’m constantly aware that the methods to which I’m drawn are able to uncover only a particular kind of knowledge. I’m therefore hopeful that, as this network develops, it will continue to draw in a range of scholars working on disparate kinds of audience studies.

And in TaPRA, of course, the subject of the audience showed up in all kinds of other papers, too – from Jim Davis’ piece on the often-visceral reactions of historical audiences, to Ben Fletcher-Watson’s work on theatre for babies, to Catherine Hindson’s research into the best-selling author Mavis Collins. (This list is obviously non-exhaustive. It’s a big conference and there was honestly so much interesting stuff – so if your research considers audiences and you’d like to enter this conversation, we’d love to hear from you). Catherine raised a particularly interesting question about how, as theatre historians, it might be possible to piece together an idea of the motivations of different audience members for attending Collins’ plays?

A fascinating question! And I think this begins to illustrate the similarity of focus between seemingly different research. While this is too big a topic to properly address now,  it’s worth here making clear that, within PARN, I for one absolutely do not intend to draw a line between historical and contemporary audiences. Both research approaches seek to piece together an idea – always partial and incomplete – of the roles, motivations, expectations, and experiences of spectators. Both approaches think through theatrical events by listening to a wider range of voices than the individual author’s. Both approaches seek to make evident the gaps and limitations of their methods – or at least the good ones do. I’ll be writing more about this soon, so I won’t linger on this point – but I do want to close this post by thanking all the TaPRA WG convenors for bringing together such a fascinating collection of papers, whose presenters often made me think about theatre audiences in new and exciting ways.

By Kirsty Sedgman

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