The theme of IETM’s Autumn 2019 plenary meeting in Rijeka was Audiences. As a recipient of Creative Scotland’s Touring Fund support to take work to audiences around Scotland, this was timely. It also resonated with questions across our industry about the future of audiences for live performance. This was an opportunity to see how these questions are being dealt with across varied international performing arts contexts.
A “pre-meeting” tour was an opportunity to explore a variety of approaches in Istria. A residency centre based in a ‘town’ of 150 inhabitants attracted regional audiences for a contemporary dance festival. Artist-led activism in former mining towns activated spaces and provided jobs (and self-worth) for local people. A public art project was chosen by curators in conjunction with local people to commemorate the school which had recently closed in their village, and reinvigorate a public space.
These approaches were typical of much of the discussion at the meeting: a shift away from encountering performance in darkened theatres. The inclusive nature of these practices and their effect on (mainly rural) communities were clear.
- The death of venues as places to meet and share and work with audiences
- Offers, even if we don’t see them accepted, are important
- Digital may change the role of audience and relationships with creators: consuming at home, interactions, inclusion in marketing, performance, the life of the work
- The market is broken. Working in places is very different to taking work to places.
- As immersive work grows, activism rises and interactive work thrives, the relationship between art and audience needs rethinking. After #metoo, how do we ensure consent is properly given - by performers and audiences?
- People already have culture in their places. Work with what’s there, and the culture each person brings. Artistic skills are around sensibility, sensitivity, a way of connecting things. It’s not a culture to impose.
Rather than attempt to summarise the meeting content, much of which is available online in reports and reference materials, I will offer glimpses of some conversations around the meeting.
An encounter with three other British artists working independently of producing organisations. The conversation is not optimistic. Life is too hard. There is no progression. Presenters too frequently don’t really care about the work they’ve booked -- they don’t see it and nor do they bring audiences. There’s too little money. Benefits are still a way of surviving after a decade of professional practice.
Theatre is being created for imagined audiences. The desire to reach Asia, Australia and the Americas with work is following the money in a capitalist vision enabled by funders. Those funders have created highly competitive systems for allocating limited resources, training arts organisations to follow the money. What is the effect on those repeatedly required to compete, perhaps every month, just to have some work?
The environmental impact of making and sharing work are rarely considered. For a community so interested in social goods and alternatives to capitalism, when it comes to buying and selling work, we aren’t developing sustainable projects. Where are the ‘slow’ international tours, building in creation, exchange and visiting many places rather than the few high profile money-pots? How often does real cultural exchange get time and support within international activities?
An artist walk including Rijeka’s contemporary arts gallery reveals the depth of interest in questions of identity. A nearly mono-ethnic state, Croatia is haunted by its past: the foundation of the modern Croatia was vicious, and parallels are often drawn with Croat support for fascism and the Nazis. An exhibition plays on these, themed as “who we are not”. It contains a performative invitation: you can have a T-shirt emblazoned I 💗 Germany from the shop, free of charge, but you must wear it out of the building. It feels like art is asking important questions here.
Discussions have been going on for several meetings now about work in rural places. This is still separated from the core meeting, its successes not celebrated as something for everyone to learn from. The nature of rural work as highly effective, achieving deep engagement and proportionally high attendance, is still a secret.
A beguiling simplicity underlies projects which understand the lives of participants and audiences, the demands on their lives, invites them to projects without trying to sell to them, and builds their trust.
There are many discussions, and a brilliant morning talk by Goran Tomka, about audiences who don’t come. About dwindling numbers. About absence.
About overcoming this: reaching out in the dark with warm hands, not knowing if anyone is there. About the offer. About presence, and truths no-one might find out. About being connected, even if alone in the room.
The talk reflects a mood across the meeting: the intangible ephemeral nature of audiences, how unpredictable they are. It rebels against a sense of shame we often feel when they don’t come. It energises us.
Themes of care, and lack of care, seemed prominent in the work I experienced -- at individual and social levels. The form of all the works was enthusiastically post-dramatic, enjoyed by the highly cultured IETM audience. For a meeting about audiences, I thought, it was notable that there seemed to be few people from outside the industry at these events.
An important motive for attendance was my appointment to IETM’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equality and Accessibility Group; this was our first in-person meeting. The vastly differing priorities these ideals received in different contexts was clear, and so was limited recognition of the extent to which those contexts themselves differ. Enabling inclusion isn’t about reflecting demographics, but about identifying who isn’t in the room, ensuring they are invited, able to come and made welcome. Different funders, in particular, have very different ways of prioritising groups of people they support, and different groups use different networks (few circus people attend IETM).
Using an international meeting of theatre makers to advocate for and resource change requires buy-in from the full membership, and so progress is necessarily slow, but it is taking place. Cultural safety and care-giving within the meeting, using national cultural funding to enable access from people from countries with less access to economic resources (in the interests of cultural exchange), and better understanding the priorities of national-level organisations were important topics.
We discuss moving from talk to action, and I am leading on writing an Action Plan to address the IDEA agenda. Who can be included in its creation, adoption and implementation?