Earlier this week, I read a totally fascinating blog by Harry Giles entitled “Shock and Care” (Here’s a link!). The blog discusses his experience of some performances at Buzzcut festival picks apart some experiences that he had where he felt like there was and was not care regarding the audience’s experience.
When I read this, I was really moved and felt really deeply the need to care for our audiences and to have them complicit with us. I don’t necessarily see “care” as the need to hold an audience member through a performance. I think care is an act of allowing people to meet the work and be the best audience they can be for whatever they see
The idea of caring for your audience is something that I encounter all the time when making work and working with the very young and their families.
This blog is an exploration of strategies of care that I’ve observed in Early Years theatre:
- Content Warnings: In Early Years theatre, it’s often the accompanying grown up who makes a decision about the work that they will see. They may or may not talk about what they will see with their child, but there is often the assumption from the parent that they know what sorts of content might be unsuitable for their child.
- Pre-Show Empowerment: In experiences like Blue Block Studio, the artist host tells the audience directly that they are allowed to leave, to cry, to sleep, to feed and that the space is designed as a safe space for babies and parents to relax and play together. This “pre-show empowerment” as I have dubbed it, allows the audience to relax in the moment. It assures them that they have been considered and that they have agency. Teatro Testoni Ragazzi in Bologna, also have the front of house staff to do a small talk about what they can expect from the performance and let them know what they can experience from the show.
- Meeting the audience before the show: Often performers will come out to the audience in the foyer to meet them. This gives the audience the chance to get to know the performers and size them up. In NERO by Alfredo Zinola and Maxwell McCarthy, the two performers lead family groups together by the hand into their almost pitch dark performance space. This reassures the audience, they know who these people are. They feel safe in their presence.
- Eye contact: Pretty much every show I’ve seen for early years involves eye contact. When a performer looks at you they are inviting you in and it can help to put you at ease. Conversely it can also be exposing, but I think this is something that comes with being a bit more self aware.
- Invitations for participation: Whenever there is audience participation, it is invited. The audience could say no.
- Comfortable seating: Seating is a key part of all shows for early years. Often, audiences are sitting on the floor, so there is usually loads and loads of cushions available. Audiences are often in in shallow rows around the stage.
I wonder whether any of these points are transferrable to ‘grown up’ live art? If an audience knows clearly the expectations of the performance and the performers. It’s a different way to work where you are constantly aware and watching the audience, where their input shapes the work and where sometimes (as I have found!) their input is totally central to the work in the first place.
I see caring for your audience as the act of putting them in the centre of the work. Considering their experiences as more than just a homogenous mass. I’m interested to find ways to put audiences at the heart of whatever work I make, whether that is through responsive improvised work or through working closely with audiences to determine what a final performance is.