Academic journal article About Performance

Asking the Audience: Audience Research and the Experience of Theatre

Academic journal article About Performance

Asking the Audience: Audience Research and the Experience of Theatre

Article excerpt

When it comes to art there is often a fairly strong societal desire to know what other people think of the artefact or experience. Indeed, 'what did you think?' or cdid you enjoy it?' are two archetypal, if uninspired, post-event questions that we ask each other on leaving a performance, film or exhibition. Edmund Burke Feldman describes this in terms of a "desire to share what we have found. It is very difficult to know or enjoy something without thinking about the reactions of someone else" (1992, 469). Typically such enquiries are informal, conversational, within networks of friends and family. Within these contexts the answers have significance within their particular networks, but there is no need to worry about their meanings or the exact relationship between the spoken utterance and the actual experience. When we are considering audiences within performance studies as a discipline, however, it is relatively commonplace to assert that a performance, or indeed any work of art, is only completed through the engagement and within the experience of an audience. Within this context the exact nature of the experience, and its relationship to the social context, the reflective utterance and the performance event becomes vital.

This is particularly the case for those, like myself, who engage with qualitative audience research and investigations that claim, however hesitantly, to have a direct empirical relationship to actual lived experiences. Qualitative audience research sets out to uncover, analyse and present, richly detailed descriptions of how audiences experience live performances. It does so through a process of methodical enquiry, typically talk-based in group discussion or interviews, but also - in research I have conducted - in creative workshops that use drawing or movement to 'deepen' and 'extend' the kinds of responses revealed.

The key concern here is the nature of spectatorship and the relationship between what we might term £the experience' of performance and any one individual's conscious, reflective ability to externalise that experience. These concerns are at once methodological, asking what is knowable about our own and other people's experiences; and also philosophical, directly interrogating the fundamental question of what it means to experience art. The methodological and philosophical are always close together as we seek our explications of the world - the way we attempt to find out about something in the world defines what it is we think that this is; and vice versa.1 Later in this paper the methodological and philosophical will also be joined by the ethical as I argue that the qualities of our epistemology (our ways of thinking) when dealing with people-based research are fundamentally affected by the nature of our research processes.

In the context of conducting research into audiences, the methodological and the philosophical come together to form a key concern: 'what is it we are looking at here?' What is it - exactly - that we are researching when we think about audience experiences? When considering my own research, asking 'what is it I'm looking at here?' entails asking in more detail about the nature of the audience experience that I am attempting to uncover. This paper will explore this question through a series of interwoven methodological and philosophical debates that consider the nature of experience; that contrast the research into 'reception processes' with research into 'reception results'; that seek to unpick the relationship between doing, watching and experiencing; that consider experience as consumption, as reflection, as trace and as a countersignature to the performance itself. First, however, I want to explore the relationship between talk and experience.2


Whenever I have been researching audiences I have frequently asked myself- and have also been frequently asked by others, not least those funding the research - what all the data I was producing might signify. …

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