After our second successful year of running the SIT-UP Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival we are looking  at how we focus on having the maximum impact in future years. Discussions with venues, production companies, actors and audiences, as well as within our own team, have allowed us to focus on what we want to achieve and the methods we currently think will work best.

Our interest is in theatre with a social impact, hence the SIT (Social Impact Theatre) in our name. While much theatre seeks purely to entertain, a proportion of shows set out to highlight social issues such as mental health, gender identity, suicide, child carers or the plight of refugees. At the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe this amounted to around 39% of the theatre on offer and while outside the Festival or Fringe environment the percentage may be lower it is still significant.

The SIT-UP Awards support theatre companies before, during and after their productions to achieve greater social impact.

So what is it that SIT-UP are trying to achieve?

Our primary focus, now as when SIT-UP was started, is on improving Audience Engagement – taking the energy that a production can infuse into its audience and turning it to something useful.

Our secondary, though in many ways no less important, goal is to encourage productions that have potentially upsetting content, to consider the possible effects of their message, their Audience Impact, and what they will do to help those affected.

We believe that social impact theatre has a responsibility to their topics and audiences beyond that or “entertaining” or even “informing”, there needs to be a balance between using theatre’s power to speak to the emotions and theatre’s responsibility not to just walk away when the show is done.

What is Audience Engagement?

Theatre, and the stories it tells, have an amazing power to put over complex social topics in ways that can get straight through to an audience. Situations and social issues that we skim over in newspapers or never really get a handle on, can suddenly become deeply moving when played out before us in a skillfully constructed, carefully presented show.

What so often happens, however, is that the curtain comes down and the audience, full of energy and engaged with the issue, are scooted out into the street. Perhaps there will be a bucket collection, or a footnote in the programme (for those who have bought one and read it after the show) that refers to a relevant charity, but more often than not that is it. End. By the time the audience get home, the passion has dissipated and any potential “good” is diluted by real life. This is even more true at the Edinburgh Fringe where audiences are often rushing off to their next show and by the end of the day are exhausted.

We at SIT-UP believe that there must be a better way to get audiences to have real, positive, on-going engagement with social issues, to turn that energy that flows from the production to the audience into action.

The SIT-UP Awards were set up by David Graham after he saw the play “Adam” about a trans-gender man born in Egypt who was persecuted and forced to flee, ending up in Scotland as a refugee. David was deeply affected by the story and, on leaving the show, wanted to learn more and do something to help, but found no information.

The 2018 and 2018 SIT-UP Awards, which have been run at the Edinburgh Fringe, have provided funding to companies who have a plan for extending the impact of their shows beyond the final curtain, as well as those providing information and support during their run. Financial awards have also been made to companies showing innovation in audience engagement including providing free tickets to “relevant” audience who would benefit from the show, e.g. young carers coming to a show on carers and schools.

What is Audience Impact?

On many occasions, shows can deeply affect audiences because the topic being presented, touches directly or indirectly on their own experience. While seeing shows on behalf of SIT-UP at the Edinburgh Fringe this year I witnessed numerous occasions of audience members brought to tears, felt of the shaking of the seat row as they sobbed or watched as they tried to gather themselves after the show so that they could get up and leave. Additionally, during the year I saw a show which at one point caused an audience-wide collective gasp of emotion and pushed buttons in me about parental loss that I didn’t even know were there and had probably remained dormant for over 50 years.

So, what do shows do when this happens? Sadly, with a few notable exceptions, nothing. As a further example from this year’s Fringe, I saw a one-person show which went though a family’s loss of their 5 year old daughter to leukemia – not a verbatim show, or even a personal show to the actor, but immensely powerful none the less with a deep and obvious impact on the audience. At the end the actor invited us to review the show, follow the company on twitter or buy the script – then mentioned two charities dealing with childhood leukemia but by that time people were leaving. No mention of grief support, no collection, and no information on the charities beyond calling out their names.

“If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this programme please go to …”, the BBC has this after a number of shows and episodes from East Enders to investigative documentaries. Where is the theatre equivalent?

“This show contains haze”, or “flashing lights” or “gunshots”. How often have you seen this outside a venue space? Where is the social impact equivalent; grief, suicide, depression, gender issues? Show synposies are often “clever” rather than informative and if topics are identified it is more likely to be; nudity, adult themes, adult language or “violence”.

On coming into a venue, shows need to provide health and safety risk assessments, we believe that there is a place for an Audience Impact statement that includes what offsetting they are going to offer; after show talks, meet the cast, “express yourself” boards, visible links to support organisations, charity leaflets. Venues need to encourage and support this as it is their audiences who are affected.

Why is it like this?

We are not saying that companies who put on social impact theatre don’t care, but the majority  of them don’t actually have a plan of what to do.

Some, fortunately few in our experience, simply see their role as “putting on a show” and don’t engage themselves with the topic or the audience beyond getting “bums on seats”. For a few, engagement is core to what they are  trying to achieve, the reason they chose that topic, produced that script, presented that show is just that, to move and motivate an audience.

For the rest there are a number of reasons why Audience Engagement and Audience Impact are not taken into account. Audience Engagement and Impact require integrating into the production development process from step one and require effort and experience that they simply may not have.

One reason is that this is simply not part of our industry yet; not in the training, not in the main shows and tours, not in the mindset of most practitioners. For those, it is not that they think its a bad idea, they simply never have it on the agenda. Ask most companies/producers to write a list of the things they need to put in place for a show and “social impact and engagement” will simply not appear as a heading.

Of course, particularly for smaller companies heading for the fringe, simply having enough processing bandwidth to take this on board is too much. Whatever their good intentions up-front, the sheer mass of detail and difficulty getting a space, publicity, actors and crew accommodation, get-in, get-out, storage, (etc etc) means that anything not core to putting the actual show on stage inevitably gets squeezed out.

Sometimes a company reaches out to a relevant charity for support but finds that the charity either doesn’t have a mechanism for providing it or there is no contact point who understands the opportunities of theatre-related activities. This has always surprised us considering the power of theatre to put over complex messages in easily absorbed ways. One might read any number of well researched papers on a topic and feel “informed” but one show looking at one life, can make us feel “involved” which is far more powerful.

Venues also have their role to play, scheduling to provide time and space for productions to take on post-show discussions or gatherings. Two things that we have noted are very powerful in supporting and engaging audiences have been simply meeting the performer after the show in a space near the exit (works best if it is the performer’s own story) and providing a feedback board where people can put their own comments/related stories up. Simple things, but they require a bit of extra planning that seems to be hard to come by.

What about the performers?

A brief aside at this point, venues that are running a programme with a number of social impact plays in should really consider providing a quiet space for the performers. Many performers at the Edinburgh Fringe are telling their own stories, often related to mental health issues, and giving them a quiet space away from audiences to recharge their batteries (and phones!) would be a real plus. I spoke with several performers who felt that a quiet space would really help them to gather their thoughts again after exposing their souls daily.

At this year’s Fringe the Salvation Army provided just such a space outside the Pleasance Courtyard – sadly not that many performers seemed to know about it and it was too far from most venues to be of much help, but a good seed of an idea.

Going Forward

In subsequent articles I shall be looking at some of the lessons learned from what we saw at this year’s Fringe and some of the plans we have to gather information and provide better support in the coming year.