We Need to Talk About (How We Talk About) Audiences

Kirsty Sedman
University of Bristol

This is a short article about a big topic: audiences. Specifically, this is an article about how the academic discipline of Theatre and Performance Studies talks about theatre audiences. But more than that, it’s also about how theatre scholars talk to audiences as part of our research – and why, so often, we don’t.

I started writing this article in Exeter at the 2019 conference of the UK’s Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA). There, three things happened.1 First, I presented a paper at the History & Historiography Working Group. Here I proposed the kind of work I do – qualitative audience research – as a form of historiography. Using methods such as interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires to draw out audience discourse, qualitative theatre audience research shares with theatre historiography a commitment to examining how experience comes to be understood. How are cultural recollections of theatrical events – along with societal events more broadly – indelibly inflected by the perspectival positions of both researcher and researched? What are we really able to know about the theatrical experience from the discursive and material traces left behind? Second, I received the page proofs of my latest article for Contemporary Theatre Review, ‘On Rigour in Theatre Audience Research’, which argues that ‘good’ empirical research lays bare the social, processual, interpretative nature of its own methodology. Third, I bought a copy of Professor Liz Tomlin’s new book Political Dramaturgies and Theatre Spectatorship, which I’ve been excited to read for a while (and not only because my name is in the index!). In fact, I’ve been looking forward to its publication since 2016, when Tomlin shared early details at a conference on ‘British Theatre in the 21st Century’, held at the Sorbonne in Paris.

It was in many ways exciting then to see that Tomlin’s argument runs along the same lines as mine: namely, that empirical methods have the capacity to produce some ‘valuable insights’ into audience reception, and that paying attention to work by seminal media audience researchers can help theatre studies to better theorise the multiple processes of interpretation that all empirical research involves.2 Yet despite a generous engagement with some key findings from my first book,3 I was sad to see within Tomlin’s pages a common misunderstanding. This is the assumption that theatre audience research, as an emergent tradition, has generally failed to acknowledge its own subjectivity. In fact, Tomlin uses my work alongside that of Helen Freshwater and Bruce McConachie to make the case that ‘empirical’ theatre audience scholarship as a collective has disingenuously claimed that our ‘mode of analysis transcends theorization’ entirely (23).

The collision of these three different TaPRA events brought into focus the tension that still exists between what I think I’m doing, as a theatre audience scholar, and what theatre studies more broadly believes. From my perspective, Tomlin’s argument that empirical research is ‘no less theorized, no more reliable or authentic a model of analysis than the theorized approach’ of spectatorship scholarship is a strawman – a misreading of a research tradition that has aside from a handful of exceptions focused earnestly on unveiling the implications of both our own and our respondents’ subjective positions (35). While Tomlin’s book claims to be ‘swimming against the tide of empirical audience research’, then, I want to use my forthcoming CTR article as a leaping-off point to argue that, in many ways, we’re actually pulling in the same direction (11).

An Important Challenge

First, it’s important to note that Political Dramaturgies and Theatre Spectatorship represents a robust, careful, and deeply thought-provoking interrogation of contemporary theatre events which work specifically ‘to provoke a particular political response’ from their audiences (11). Over 205 pages, Tomlin meticulously details the aesthetic strategies used by artists within such work, and argues that Rancière’s infamous ‘emancipated spectator’ is in practice an overly-utopian concept, presupposing an ‘unfettered logic of autonomous response’ that is actually deeply, furtively neoliberal (11). For someone whose research is concerned with the manoeuvres by which spectators negotiate their reactions to aesthetic experience both within and against the constraints of the audience invitation, this provocation poses an exciting challenge. Tomlin also raises an important – and highly urgent – concern about research like mine which seeks to talk to audiences, suggesting that it is particularly ‘vulnerable to assimilation within that same neoliberal obsession with the spectator-consumer’ (26).

The potential for audience research to be instrumentalised is a problem that my work has addressed in a number of publications4 – most recently my CTR piece – but which I have not resolved to my satisfaction, nor Tomlin’s. I particularly welcome how Tomlin pulls me up on my own early argument (at best overly optimistic, at worst embarrassingly naive!) that hearing what audiences want doesn’t necessarily mean we have to give it to them. Because what if, in fact, this is precisely what the theatre industry uses our findings to do – to give audiences what they want, with ‘all the crass populist pandering that the phrase implies’?5 The potential for dangerously unforeseen consequences exemplified in Paul Kosidowski’s 2003 question is absolutely a conversation worth continuing.

This is a particularly timely problem: because as Tomlin explains, since the publication of Helen Freshwater’s theatre & audience in 2009 the field of Theatre and Performance studies has seen the ‘nascent field of audience research […] rapidly accelerated and broadened by a swathe of subsequent publications’, which together have sought to gather information on the responses ‘of real, non-expert theatre spectators’ to the things they see (23; 11). Using Janelle Reinelt’s excellent 2014 article ‘What UK Spectators Know’, Tomlin usefully lists a roll-call of reasons why theatre studies has traditionally been wary of empirical research – reasons which my CTR article also summarises, so I won’t detail them again here. Yet the interesting thing is that, for Tomlin, it is empirical researchers who now seem to be the wary ones, having apparently demonstrated ‘a scepticism of the […] theoretical study of spectators’ that historically has been the dominant mode by which theatre studies has conceptualised audience response (23). It is here that I worry our fruitful conversation has broken down.

A Defensive Manoeuvre?

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen critical spectatorship scholarship positioned in relation to empirical work (a term which I duly dissect in my piece for CTR). Adam Alston’s 2016 Beyond Immersive Theatre also begins with a disclaimer: that while empirical methods ‘have much to offer to our understanding of audience engagement in a range of settings’, phenomenological insights into the practice of spectatorship from the ‘critical position’ of ‘an opinionated theorist’ are still an important area of study.6 Meanwhile, Tomlin opens her book by addressing ‘the challenge’ that she believes empirical research has directly mounted to the ‘theoretical tradition’ of spectatorship analysis (11). This is an oddly defensive position to take: one in which the value of spectatorship theory seemingly needs to be (re)affirmed in relation to the perceived threat of empirical scholarship. Rather than challenging one another’s validity, I want to suggest that empirical audience and critical spectatorship research might more usefully be understood in collaboration.

So what is this perceived challenge? Both Alston and Tomlin seem to believe that empirical research has been asserting greater epistemological legitimacy over its theoretical counterpart – believing itself able to know more about theatrical experience, reception, and response thanks to ‘empirical’ evidence of ‘objective’ data. This is why, for Alston, ‘the “I” of the researcher’ of spectatorship theory has become ‘the scapegoat of empirical research methods’ – a research tradition which he suggests ‘values objectivity over and above alternative values’.7 From my perspective, though, it feels like over the past decade the empirical researcher has somehow become the scapegoat of critical theory, forced to carry the weight of a positivism that we are much more likely to reject. Similarly, Tomlin argues that ‘despite claims to the contrary’, all audience research is always subjective and interpretative, with spectators’ responses ‘mediated by the respondents themselves, aware of the context of the interview, the status of the interviewer and the narrative of self they are presenting’ (25-6).

To which I would reply – yes, we know! Becomes when it comes to the tradition of qualitative, ethnographically-inspired, discursive audience research, at least, our own subjectivity is not a ‘gotcha’ – a surprising or embarrassing revelation that invalidates our knowledge-claims. On the contrary, subjectivity is the focal point around which qualitative research revolves. At least, this was the argument I made in a 2017 article for Theatre Research International called ‘Audience Experience in an Anti-Expert Age’, where I acknowledged that ‘all articulations of aesthetic response are subjective, drawing on sometimes competing, sometimes complementary’ knowledge systems, and that all audience research must therefore be understood as ‘an interpretive act: an act of interpreting an act of interpretation’.8

Interpretative Acts

Building from this prior work – and mobilising decades of debates from the media and mass communications ‘audience studies’ tradition – my new CTR article further proposes that when constructing ‘a narrative of reception’ we need to analyse ‘the ways audiences came to their evaluative judgements, how we as researchers came to construct our interpretations, and where [our] resultant knowledge-claims end’. It is in this ‘groping-toward’ knowledge, I suggest, that the real epistemological value lies. I for one am much less interested in defining what is valuable than in asking how experiences come to be understood as valuable within that particular time, space, and discursive context.

So when Tomlin suggests that this kind of attention to the mediated construction of audience response has been ‘notable in its absence from most contemporary audience research’ (26), she is unfortunately overlooking all the excellent work that has argued precisely this: whether Matthew Reason’s 2010 article in About Performance, which demonstrates how audience response shifts between the connected planes of experience, recollection, and articulation; or Katya Johanson and Hilary Glow’s concept of the ‘virtuous circle’, which urges researchers to address the phenomenon of positive ‘confirmation bias’ in researcher-respondent interactions; or indeed going back all the way to the work of Willmar Sauter in the 1980s/90s, which situated discursive methodologies as absolutely bound up in the social interaction of research. As my CTR article argues, audience studies as a whole has always acknowledged the importance of examining findings through the lens of its own methodological process.

So what does all this mean? Firstly, it means that the viewpoints of the ‘critic or scholar’ – those who write from highly-invested, ‘expert’, or professionally-inflected perspectives – are far from being seen as ‘less valuable’ or ‘authentic’ than ‘the responses of “real” audience members who are without professional or vested interest’, as Tomlin suggests (25). Absolutely not! As I argued in Theatre Research International, rather than ‘elevating non-expert judgements over critically informed models’ the ‘long-running discipline’ of audience studies has actually ‘been defined by decades of attempts to uncover […] the varying ways our assessments are bound up in our […] systems of knowledge’.9 Far from challenging the legitimacy of phenomenological work, I have always valued critical spectatorship for its ability to present important insights ‘into the evaluative process in action, but crucially as experienced from a singular perspective’. Importantly, though, I’m also aware that this singular perspective is not a weakness but a strength! Just like ‘first-hand phenomenological analysis, or Spectator-Participation-as-Research (SPaR)’, these expert auto-ethnographic approaches are ‘modes of enquiry which all have the capacity to lay bare [the meaning-making] process with exceptional depth, nuance, and care’.

But while it may not be a weakness of spectatorship research specifically, there has nonetheless been a missed opportunity within theatre studies in general: which is to understand ‘how a broader sweep of spectators, coming at an event from different directions “and bringing with them varying experiences, expectations, knowledges and language frameworks, take away very different kinds of meaning”’.

None of this means that I see ‘real’ audiences (as Tomlin calls them) or my own ‘actual’ audiences (a term which my CTR piece similarly interrogates) as exhibiting more ‘authentic’ forms of response than professionally-invested spectators. However, I do believe that people without access to professionalised modes of knowledge and language might perhaps exhibit differing and multiple processes of meaning-making: processes that without the endorsement of a newspaper column or, today, the technological and cultural confidence to create a blog, may otherwise go undetected. In ‘demand[ing] that greater attention is paid to empirical methods of audience research’, then, empirical scholars like myself and Freshwater are not calling for an end to ‘the kind of theoretical analysis’ that Tomlin et al. carry out (24). Nor are we demanding that spectatorship theorists should learn to do empirical research of their own, either in addition or instead.

Following Freshwater’s lead, I’ve simply argued that there has historically been an overarching erasure of ‘ordinary’ audiences’ responses within theatre studies – and that redressing this balance does not mean erasing scholarly/critical expertise. It just means that people who are drawn to empirical methodologies might be able to bring to our field ‘an important part of the puzzle’: namely, an understanding of the processes by which different individuals – with varied forms of lived experience, cultural background, and knowledge – come to their varying value-judgements. In my most optimistic moments, I see the political significance of this work to be its potential to make space for voices that (until relatively recently) have rarely been heard by theatre – an act which doesn’t necessarily mean taking space away from those to whom we have traditionally tended to listen.

Reversing a Misunderstanding

So how has the misunderstanding come about? This is, I think, a consequence of the parallel rise in ‘neuroaesthetic’ cognitive science, which as Tomlin notes surged into the theatre-studies mainstream at around the same time as discursive audience research. Tomlin’s book presents a blistering – and entirely brilliant – rebuttal of Bruce McConachie’s 2008 Engaging Audiences: a book which does make those problematically lofty claims of positivist objectivity that here I’ve disavowed. The problem is the word ‘empirical’, which has become a catch-all for highly disparate forms of audience research. As in so many other academic fields, theatre studies’ emerging enthusiasm for cognitive science has left qualitative researchers caught in a trap: because for spectatorship theorists we’re now getting lumped in with neuroaesthetics as making those ‘empirical’ claims of objective falsifiability, while for cognitive scientists like McConachie we’re seen as too unscientific to count as empirical at all.

Meanwhile, I firmly believe that spectatorship and audience scholars are fighting on the same side – our common enemies being: 1) The metricisation of value exemplified by the Arts Council’s ‘discredited Quality Metrics Framework’ (29), which is now forcing its big-budget arts organisations to ask audiences to assign quantitative ratings to the perceived success (or failure) of their work; and 2) The delegitimisation of articulated lived experience as a valid form of knowledge by some people embedded in the scientific tradition. (There is not the space in this short article to summarise my position on these two connected problems, so I hope that before mounting a rebuttal the interested reader will read the full argument in CTR!)

All of which has led me to realise why I – a researcher who has never considered myself to be a historian – keep finding myself, year after year, returning at TaPRA to the History & Historiography Working Group. Because just like qualitative audience researchers, theatre historians tend to understand that ‘it is very difficult – perhaps impossible – to write history in which some form of speculation or imagination does not occur’ – whether this means

making connections between sources or […] assessing new evidence that has been unearthed or […] filling in the gaps when evidence is unavailable. Nor can it be assumed that approaches to writing history should be theory-free […]. Far better to acknowledge the ideas that are influencing one’s own opinions rather than to assume naively that one is untouched by theoretical positions. Even the selection of evidence is unlikely to be free from bias.10

That is why my CTR article proposes that, instead of using Reinelt’s definition of objectivity as ‘disinterested in its results’, good empirical research necessitates acknowledging that we are all of course ‘highly interested: we are, after all, subject to the same political intentions and societal biases of any other scholar’. My proposal is that empirical research becomes rigorous when we ‘disclose those interests’, by acknowledging how the act of watching – and the viewpoint of the watcher – has shaped the very phenomena we watch, along with the things we claim to have found as a result.

This is also why, when I presented my paper to theatre historiographers at TaPRA this year, a founding H&H member responded bemusedly: ‘But that’s what we all do anyway?’. Theatre history seems to be that rare space within Theatre and Performance studies where it is generally acknowledged that there is ‘no “objective truth” waiting to be uncovered […] but merely assessments and interpretations of the evidence available’11 – and that this is not a weakness but a strength of our research.

Kirsty Sedgman is Lecturer in Theatre at Bristol University and Editor of the Routledge book series in Audience Research. Specialising in theatre audience studies, her work explores topics including response, behaviour, fandom, and experience. She is currently completing her British Academy postdoctoral research fellowship investigating theatre/audience engagements through time.
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  1. A fourth thing was that I met the editor of Interventions, Dr Broderick Chow, who has kindly supported me toward the publication of this piece.
  2. Liz Tomlin, Political Dramaturgies and Theatre Spectatorship: Provocations for Change (London: Methuen Drama, 2019), p. 10. Hereafter, page references to Tomlin’s book are given in text.
  3. Kirsty Sedgman, Locating the Audience: How People Found Value in National Theatre Wales (Intellect: Bristol, 2016).
  4. See e.g. Kirsty Sedgman, ‘Audience Experience in an Anti- Expert Age’, Theatre Research International 42:3 (2017), pp. 307–22; Kirsty Sedgman ‘Challenges of Cultural Industry Knowledge Exchange in Live Performance Audience Research’, Cultural Trends 28:2-3 (2019), pp. 103-117.
  5. Paul Kosidowski, ‘Thinking through the Audience’, Theatre Topics 13:1 (2003), pp. 83–86, p84.
  6. Adam Alston, Beyond Immersive Theatre: Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 26.
  7. Alston, Beyond Immersive Theatre, 26.
  8. Sedgman, ‘Anti-Expert’, p. 313; 315.
  9. Sedgman, ‘Anti-Expert’, 28.
  10. Jim Davis, Katie Normington & Gilli Bush-Bailey with Jackie Bratton, ‘Research Methods and Methodology’ in Baz Kershaw’s ed. Research Methods in Theatre and Performance, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), p. 92.

  11. Davis et al., ‘Research Methods’, 90.

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