What’s Next for SIT-UP?

Following our second successful year of running the SIT-UP Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019, our focus is on creating the maximum impact going forward.

The ‘SIT’ in SIT UP stands for Social Impact Theatre and our interest lays in supporting theatre companies before, during and after their productions to achieve greater social impact.

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. In fact, this accounted for 39% of the theatre on offer at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe. Even outside the Festival or Fringe environment the percentage is significant.

Through discussions with venues, production companies, actors and audiences and within our own team we have sharpened our focus.

What is SIT-UP Trying to Achieve?

The main aim of SIT-UP has not changed since the idea was born; our primary objective is to improve Audience Engagement – harnessing the energy that a production can infuse into its audience and turning that into to something powerful and purposeful.

Secondly, but no less important, we seek to encourage productions that are sharing potentially upsetting content to consider the possible effect on their audience. They need to understand their Audience Impact and what they could do to help audience members who are affected

We believe that social impact theatre has a responsibility to both the issue and the audience. It  goes beyond “entertaining” or even “informing”.  Powerful theatre which speaks to the emotions must be balanced with a responsibility not to simply walk away when the curtain falls, leaving the audience with no direction on how to channel their emotional response.

So, what is Audience Engagement?

Theatre, and the stories it tells, have a remarkable power to portray complex social topics which speak directly to an audience. Social issues about which we have limited personal knowledge or understanding can suddenly become deeply moving when played out in a skilfully constructed, carefully presented show.

When the curtain falls too often the audience, full of energy and engaged with the issue, leave the theatre space, scooted out into the street. Occasionally there will be a collection bucket, 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, the end is THE END.

By the time the audience get home, their passion and intention have dissipated and the potential for “good” is diluted, even lost. This is particularly true at the Edinburgh Fringe where audiences are often rushing off to their next show and by the end of the day are often physically and metally exhausted.

We at SIT-UP believe that there must be a better way to get audiences to retain real, positive, on-going engagement with the social issues raised; a way to transform the emotional energy generated by the production into audience action.

What is Audience Impact?

Shows can deeply affect audiences when the topics presented touch directly or indirectly on their own experience.

Reactions that we witnessed at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe included; audiences in tears, seat rows shaking as people sobbed, audible collective gasps of emotion, audience members having to leave because a show was becoming too hard to watch and audience members needing time to gather their emotions at the end before leaving the performance space. None of this is uncommon in social impact theatre.

Shows that have this effect, whether that is one of the primary goals of the production or not, need to consider how to support those afffected audience members.

Where is the theatre equivalent of  “If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this programme please contact….” or “To find out more, and for ways you can help, ….”

Disclaimers and warnings outside a venue space: “This show contains haze”, or “flashing lights” or “gunshots” are commonplace. Where is the social impact equivalent of a flashing lights warning? This show deals with……..grief, suicide, depression, gender issues, death. Show synopses are often “clever” rather than informative and topics identified are more likely to be; nudity, adult themes, strong language or violence.

We a few notable exceptions no ‘helping hand’ or dedicated action line is extended to theatre audiences after a performance to allow them to engage further with the issue or to seek help.

We genuinely believe there is a place for an Audience Impact Statement in much the same way as companies must provide health and safety and risk assessments.

An Audience Impact statement would detail how the production plans to engage with an audience and offset the impact of their show. Will they offer after show talks, meet the cast, “express yourself” boards, visible links to support organisations, charity leaflets or just a quiet space for audience members to take stock and breathe. This responsibility should fall to both production companies and venues.

Our drive is to support production companies, venues and actors as they tackle the issue of engagement and impact in social impact theatre. So how can we promote a change?