Features Published 22 October 2018

What is ‘good’ theatre?

Audience experience researcher Dr Kirsty Sedgman writes on why ideas of ‘quality’ and ‘value’ in theatre are all but impossible to measure.

Dr Kirsty Sedgman

Posters at the Edinburgh fringe

2018 was the year that Lyn Gardner found herself, with one week left to go at the Edinburgh Festival, still struggling to track down that elusive beast: the five-star show. Despite having seen a lot of good shows, as well as some very nice shows, she still hadn’t seen the show: one of the Fringe’s annual ‘standout hits’.

But in an artistic climate that is increasingly – often very deliberately – challenging traditional notions of ‘quality’, does our traditional definition of a five-star show need rethinking? As the Festival dust settled, this was the question Lyn asked in her reflective September column for The Stage. What is ‘good’ theatre, anyway? And who gets to decide?

After all, as theatre-making cultures become more representative, modes of performance have always shifted too, embracing fresh experiments with structure, form, space, and time. As Lyn said: ‘new stories […] demand new forms of telling’. Perhaps these new voices and new performance practices are simply giving antiquated conceptions of ‘quality’ and ‘standards’ a long-overdue kick up the rear? The danger is that if we keep on using the same old systems of judgment then performances which don’t fit into traditional models may be fatally wounded – either critically panned, slapped with a lukewarm three stars, or simply overlooked. As Lyn pointed out, this risk is particularly acute for ‘work by artists who are least well-represented in contemporary theatre – artists of colour, women and disabled artists and work co-created with communities – much of which does not conform to accepted dramaturgies’. ‘Too often,’ Lyn says, ‘when theatre does not fit the dominant model, it is dismissed as worthless’.

The problem with quality

Within the UK, notions of ‘quality’ and ‘standards’ have a long and problematic history. The very first chairman of the Arts Council (then called CEMA, short for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts) was John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was only persuaded to take the helm of CEMA because he was allowed to prioritise the first two words of CEMA’s original slogan – ‘The Best for the Most’ – over the final two. In a letter to Baron Ifor Evans, Keynes admitted to having “limited sympathy” with CEMA’s founding principles in case “what one may call the welfare side was to be developed at the expense of the artistic side and of standards generally”. Keynes thought it was much less important for CEMA to continue supporting work by amateur and community groups than it was to promote a narrow ideal of aesthetic excellence.

So while – as Lyn Gardner points out – ‘quality is always a matter of perception’, it will surely be no surprise to hear that some perceptions have always been valued more highly than others.

The solution? To set cultural discourse free from the iron grip of gatekeepers: a cabal traditionally made up of politicians, arts funders, theatre-makers, and critics – historically an overtly white, male, privileged community. At the same time as we’re mourning the cull of arts criticism from our newspapers, then, we should also rejoice at how the erosion of mainstream voices is being balanced out by a groundswell of audiences, using online platforms to reflect carefully and arrestingly from a multiplicity of subject positions. The Critics of Colour collective is an especially exciting development, its founders – journalist Bridget Minamore, arts producer Georgia Dodsworth, and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz – working to widen the theatre criticism pool by encouraging a more representative range of voices.

What I think all this means is that we are finally starting to recognise the value of widening our view of value itself. After all, we may previously have thought that our critical evaluations of art – as good, bad, or something in between – are just neutral reflections on the quality of the work. But we’re starting to realise how this is only the case when our modes of aesthetic judgment align with dominant systems of valuing art. As I say in my new book, The Reasonable Audience, there is no such thing as a ‘universal’ story (just like – as Arinzé Kene says in his Preface to Misty – there is no such thing as a ‘Black play’) – because: ‘If a viewer feels themselves to have risen above their own subjectivity then this is only because the piece is speaking to themselves as a viewing subject. If an experience appears neutral, this is because the worldview of artwork and spectator precisely align’. ‘Universal’ and ‘Black’ are categorisations formed via relations of power, whereby white people get to stand in for everybody ever, while people of colour are only ever allowed to represent themselves.

This is why it is so important to understand how our evaluative processes actually operate. Inviting traditionally underrepresented voices to join the conversation can help us to think more carefully about the kinds of culture that tend to get valued, and to consider who our so-called universal stories are really designed to address.

The role of audience research

As a lecturer and theatre academic specialising in audience research, these questions go right to the heart of my work. I am interested in exploring how people come at an event with expectations, hopes, or worries; with particular senses of community, culture, and self-identity; with specific ideas about place or nation; with personal histories and life-experiences; with varying theatrical knowledges and conceptions of art. How do the ways we come at an event inflect what we take away from it?

Quite different to the usual post-show feedback forms and evaluation projects, this isn’t the ‘advocacy research’ that Eleonora Belfiore lambasts in her explosive article ‘On Bullshit in Cultural Policy Practice and Research’. Yes, I may use similar methods – questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, as well as more creative and participatory workshop formats – but my analysis tends to take a different tack. Instead of trying to prove that audiences get the benefits from the arts that we assume (or hope), and then using the resulting praise to satisfy funders, I want to show how complicated and messy the act of ‘being an audience’ really is. What leads one person to feel they have been invited inside a performance, able and willing to get something from it, while somebody else feels shut out? If art is subjective then my research simply studies how our particular subjectivities tend to tilt us towards certain kinds of response. The aim is to widen our understanding of theatrical value beyond an elite bubble of knowledgeable voices (critics, artists, scholars), by paying attention to other kinds of knowledge and other kinds of experience. Audiences, I have always said, are the experts of their own response. We need to take them seriously.

Which was all fine and dandy until 2016, and Brexit, and Trump, and the sudden relentless outpouring of anti-expertise. Overnight, contempt for critically informed knowledge began spewing from almost every social-commentary orifice, and it made me see my work in a different light. If everyone’s an expert, what about those people who’ve spent years, decades, entire careers studying the arts? Should the responses of those who think and care deeply about theatre – whatever their background – really be placed on the same level as the Daily Mail reader who loudly dismisses everything as pretentious crap?

After all, as an audience researcher my job is to elevate the voices of those with contrary points of view. I listen to them all. To the person who leaves an experimental performance feeling disoriented and confused, unclear what the piece was asking them to feel. To those who love spectacular musical extravaganzas for their emotional power, but who can’t connect with even the most riveting Pinter performance in the same way. To the spectator who comes into site-specific theatre expecting a kind of historical re-enactment, and leaves angry because what they got was more ‘artistic’ and obscure.

And I listen too to those in possession of the specific forms of knowledge and language (what French sociologist Bourdieu called the ‘cultural capital’) needed to ‘decode’ the theatrical experience and unlock its value. In my academic article ‘Audience Experience in an Anti-Expert Age’, I said this: ‘Audiences do not necessarily have to be “experts” in order to respond to art, and art does not need to be understood in order to be meaningful, yet people do need to feel able to grasp how they are meant to be orienting themselves (physically, cognitively, emotionally) towards an experience in order to gain value’. But in holding all these disparate voices up to the light and considering them equally, am I just reinforcing society’s growing refusal to recognise hard-won expertise?

Ignoring expertise?

This is certainly a viewpoint held by some. In a response to Lyn Gardner earlier this year, Maddy Breen of Oxford’s Creation Theatre Company wrote about the importance of national press to regional theatre, suggesting that enthusiastic bloggers may lack the ‘technical insight’ of ‘professional reviewers’. After the release in 2017 of the Towards Cultural Democracy report, a number of industry figures complained that moves to democratise culture may risk delegitimising specialist knowledge. Perhaps most worryingly, the Arts Council has just announced that they’re forging ahead with their Quality Metrics framework (now renamed the ‘Impact and Insight Toolkit’, previously called ‘Culture Counts’) despite major sector concerns, forcing NPOs to ask audiences to rate the ‘quality’ of their work.

In the Arts Council’s new system, what if easy enjoyment measures well at the expense of more uncomfortable/discomforting art? What if the preferences of ‘Joe Public’ overrule the assessments of excellence made by those who are aesthetically in-the-know? This is what music scholar Nancy Weiss Hanrahan sees as the danger of ‘consensus culture’, arguing that while ‘criticism helps to keep open the space for the experimental or edgy or as yet unproven, consensual culture tends toward the middle, toward the agreed upon and the known’.

All this has led me to wonder how audience research, done well, might be able to lead us out of the anti-expert trap – rather than pulling us further down into the hole. This question has required me to shift my thinking about value itself. Too often we talk about cultural value as if it’s an end-point. Outcome, benefit, impact: these words all suggest something fixed and unchanging, something that can be evaluated, weighed, quantified. Instead, I see value as a process – one that cannot be measured, but which can be understood in other ways. So when I ask audiences to rate a performance on a Likert scale from ‘excellent’ to ‘awful’, I’m not interested in reducing their answers down to some middle-ground-average quality rating (“Congratulations! You have made a 65% Excellent show!”). Instead, through correlating qualitative with quantitative answers, I want to draw out the systems of criteria people use to make and articulate their judgments. How do people reach for words to describe these indescribable experiences? On which varying kinds of knowledge, language, and experience do they draw? With apologies to the Arts Council, these are questions that a demographic/attitudinal survey cannot even begin to answer. In fact, my big worry is that the requirement to capture standardised Insight & Impact data will now make it impossible for audience researchers trained in quali-quant research design and discourse analysis methods to work with NPOs at all – because NPOs will already be locked in to asking audiences this particular set of questions. Rather than honing in on the valuation – the star rating, the ‘quality’ assessment, the sorting of art into ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ – we need instead to gain a deeper understanding of how the process of evaluation actually works.

Brecht or Brexit: Differing Viewpoints Matter

Whether we’re talking Brecht or Brexit, it is always astounding to me how different people can watch the same event unfold and come to such polarised conclusions. And as an artform that invites people into shared space to join in an experience that is individual yet collective, I see theatre as the ideal laboratory for capturing the meaning-making process in action.

Rather than encouraging anti-expertise thinking or capturing consensus, this approach forces us to pay attention to audience experience in all its rich, divergent, fascinating complexity. Now more than ever, we need to overthrow the idea of art as intrinsically ‘valuable’ – or otherwise – in favour of asking to whom certain performances have value, and in what ways? This is one step towards understanding how varying value judgments come to be formed.

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Dr Kirsty Sedgman

Kirsty Sedgman is a theatre lecturer at the University of Bristol specialising in audience research. Her new book The Reasonable Audience, on audience behaviour and the theatre etiquette debates, is due to be published by Palgrave very soon. She is currently engaged in a three-year British Academy postdoctoral research fellowship investigating regional theatre audience engagement through time. www.kirstysedgman.com, @KirstySedgman

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