21st century auditoria and audiences: more about anthropology than the shade of red in the foyer

Purple balloons at the Royal Albert Hall

The privileges and responsibilities of artistic directors of theatres and arts venues traditionally range wide, from determining artistic policy and creative content to injecting artistic taste to aspects of business and operations. Many a director has chosen the precise shade of colour to paint the foyer or the toilets, in the belief that a venue’s artistic identity must be controlled tightly and within a finely tuned sensibility, like a boutique hotel or chef-led restaurant.  This artisitically -driven business model, where putting on the right work in the right way with the right colour of paint in the foyer is deemed to drive the overall success of the operation, attracting audiences and cash.  Amongst the greatest proponents of this model were the triumvirate at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow in the 1970s, where a high style attracted not only increased audiences but increased public investments and where Philip Prowse chose the precise shade of red in the foyer.

But does having such a distinct personality benefit today’s performing arts venues?

The Auditoriums Meet Conference in Dublin last week convened the leaders and designers of some of the world’s latest landmark performance auditoria. Some were brand new venues like the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin and the Curve in Leicester, both created during times of economic buoyancy and both of which have had to work had to carve out a place in the market. And then there were the Scandinavians, dedicated to the pursuit of acoustic and environmental quality regardless, it seems, of cost or time, like  the world’s most expensive concert hall, the Koncerthuset  in Copenhagen and its Norwegian neighbour the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand.

But more of the venues were transformations, not only of bricks and mortar, but also a transformation of the historic top down relationship with the audience.   Whereas 20th century venues put on work, marketed it to the audiences and then, when they came, sold them a drink, 21st century venues convene with their communities, audiences, affiliates and commercial partners and together create experiences.

Like Cinderella’s glittering carriage magicked from a pumpkin, Dublin’s 02  is an astonishing reinvention of the 9000 seat concert venue which not only accommodates with style and comfort audiences and artists for the central performance but also pays as much attention to other parts of the experience. Mike Adamson O2’s CEO was obsessive about getting the right lighting to create ambience in the various zones of the O2, from the bars where pints can be pulled in 20 seconds, to the VIP Audi club   and Premium,.  And Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, transformed from the Hummingbird Centre in the wake of an explosion of new venues, to become a multicultural arts centre with cup holders built into the seats. The overall experience is serviced through the $20 themed drink and dinner offer and a recognition that audiences will be live streaming, taking photos, as well as checking into Foursquare and Facebook during the performance.

This attention to all parts of the customer experience in attending an event is critical to the success of performance auditoria in the 21st century.  The dimensions of the ‘experience’ includes not only the real but the virtual, and not only during the concert but before and after, and not only the individual experience but the experience in relation to others, before, during after and in the hall, the club,  the bar, the car park and on facebook, foursquare and gowalla .

Deeper affiliations and corporate partnerships create not only a greater use of lighting, like O2 blue, but genuinely collaborative partnerships of mutual benefit. Naming rights are the flavour of the decade, with the Grand Canal about to become the Bord Gáis Theatre, the Cloudy Bay bar in the Albert Hall as the chillout bar of SW7 and the O2 and Sony Centre demonstrating that its easy to switch from one name to another.

The methods and tools for engaging with audiences have similarly been turned upside down. The Smirnoff Night Exhange  segments its audiences simply – Are you a Paparazzi or a Poser?  Fanshake uses social media to generate masses of’fans’ in short spaces of time.

Copenhagen Living Lab  goes much deeper, applying an anthropological model to the live experience, analysing individual archetypes and their behaviours with reference to the work on liminality of Van Gennep and then Turner. These anthropologists described the very specific behaviours of communities involved in  ‘liminoid’ experiences, a term used to refer to the collective reflexion and almost transcendental  experience of the audience at  the live performance. Copenhagen Living Lab is concerned less with the philosophy but more with what an adoption of the defined behaviours can do for sales. The audience is involved in four phases: preparation, separation (from ordinary social life);  margin or limen (meaning threshold), when subjects of ritual fall into a limbo between their past and present modes of daily existence; and  re-aggregation when they are ritually returned to secular or mundane life.

While old school arts marketing stops when the ticket is sold, new audience engagement recognises and embraces the power of individual audience members, considers their motivations – posers or paparazzi, social or culture vulture – and upsells and encourages referalls at all stages in the ritual of performance.

A 21st century engagement with the audience generates fans and masses of sale. Its all a long way from painting the front of house areas.

  1. Anne, Thanks for this review of some of the discussions at AuditoriumsMeet 2011. I am still shocked by the number of arts organisations and entertainment venues still stuck in the pyramidical, top-down management mentality. Audience engagement and customer ’empowerment’ will leave them behind.

    PS. Next stop for AuditoriumsMeet 2012? Could be Edinburgh… checking it out next week…

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