SIT-UP Champions Audience Engagement and Audience Impact Statements

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, ….”. With few notable exceptions no ‘helping hand’ or dedicated action line is extended to theatre audiences after a show that carries a social impact message!

We are not pointing fingers. It’s not that companies who put on social impact theatre don’t care, the majority just don’t actually have a plan for how to do audience engagement or what to do about audience impact.

In a few cases 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 considered.

  1. Audience Engagement and Audience Impact need to be an integral part of production development from step one. It requires effort and experience that many simply don’t possess.
  2. The issues of engagement and impact are simply not integral to our industry yet; it’s not in the training, not in the main shows and tours, not in the mindset of most practitioners and so it is not on the planning agenda (yet!). 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.
  3. Smaller companies, such as those heading for the fringe, simply may not have the bandwidth to take this on board. Whatever their good intentions up-front, it’s too much with everything else (difficulty getting a space, publicity, cast and crew accommodation, get-in, get-out, storage, etc….).
  4. 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.
  5. Venues also have a role to play, scheduling to provide time and space for productions to take on post-show discussions or gatherings. Two things we noted are very powerful in supporting and engaging audiences have been simply meeting the performer after the show 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 which venues need to support.
  6. There is a small chance that it may not even occur to the company that their show will have a lasting impact beyond the confines of the theatre or venue. They have created a piece of theatre that aims to entertain or inform and have not given enough consideration to the power of storytelling as it relates to social topics and an audience.

Taking Things Forward

If you are looking for ways to plan and incorporate Audience Impact in a forthcoming production, check out some of the lessons learned from the productions we saw at this year’s Fringe (2019).

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. And we look forward to sharing some of the plans we have to gather information and provide better support to enable this in the coming year.

p.s. Don’t Forget the Performers

A brief aside, but as part of planning we encourage venues that are running a programme with a number of social impact plays to 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 emotional batteries (and phones!) would be a real plus.

At 2019 Fringe we spoke with several performers who felt that a quiet space would really help them to gather their thoughts again after exposing their souls. Beyond the performance spaces, there was a seed of this idea from the Salvation Army who provided just such a space outside the Pleasance Courtyard. Sadly not many performers were aware of it and it was too far from most venues to be much help but at least they were trying to help.