A New Theatre for a New Public

Theatron Director Lars Seeberg on the need for strategic audience development in the performing arts & the role of Theatron.

Theatron Network

Theatron means theatre in classic Greek but originally it means ”the place from where you look” which is why we thought that Theatron – stressing the point of view of the spectator – would be an appropriate name for our five-year performing arts project which focuses on audience development.

So, why this interest in audiences?

My own inspiration comes from a report for the Danish Ministry for Culture on the future of performing arts in Denmark, which I was in charge of a couple of years ago. For me the most interesting – or, maybe more precisely, alarming – discovery that the report revealed was that attendances in the public theatres in Denmark had quite drastically declined by 30 % over the last 30 years.

I wanted to know why this decline had occurred and how this could be changed. I wanted to know how the European public theatre could still have a future in a buyers’ market where nothing can be taken for granted anymore in theatre, in all other art forms or in the media for that matter. The culture shift – tradition to newness/verbal to visual/ individual to social – is simply prevailing globally.

One of the visitors for the committee in charge of the report was Dragan Klaic, one of Europe’s truly cosmopolitan theatre scholars, who inspired our work to great length.

His analysis of the situation and his recommendations for change can now be read in a book published after his all too early death in 2011. I think that everybody interested in the situation and challenges for public theatre in Europe should read this book thoroughly. It’s called: “Resetting the stage   – Public Theatre between the Market and Democracy”.

Klaic includes a couple of important quotes in this book which deal with exactly the same issues we in Theatron face:

“Public theatre is about free enquiry in a democracy; commercial theatre is about making money in a mass leisure market. An audience in a subsidised theatre is a micro-community of citizens, engaged in deliberative democracy, whereas in commercial theatre it is a group of consumers paying to be amused.”

“…theatre is evidently no longer the main public pastime it was in the big West European cities of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century. It has become a minority option, one of many, among which are consumption of high-quality digital cultural goods…”

So, on the one hand it is potentially important. On the other hand it is not really dominant!

But why, then, do people go to the theatre? According to Dragan Klaic it is primarily because of “social motivation” – they want to spend time with other people to go to the theatre!

Still it is a fairly small percentage of the European population which attends public theatres, namely the so-called “silver tsunami”. The well-educated, well-off, white section of society. Not the young, not that many men and hardly any representatives of new, first or second generation Europeans.

According to Klaic this can only be changed by the so-called 4P approach:

  • programming
  • partnership
  • personnel
  • public outreach

And this is exactly what we intend to analyse and practise during the five year of our collaboration in Theatron.

Together the partners and associate partners represent a stronghold of European performing arts. We already work with the challenges touched upon before, but we want to do better through mutual inspiration and collaboration.

We intend to present best practices for the whole European landscape of the performing arts in:

  • new artistic expressions for new audiences
  • new ways of engagement and outreach
  • new ways of optimizing the work inside the organizations
  • new ways of opening up our building to the public all day
  • new ways of communicating with both our known and unknown public
  • new ways of making theatre important to the society through public service
  • new ways of basing our responses on knowledge instead of assumptions

When we have succeeded in that we shall be able to live up to the substantial potential of public theatre, which – according to Dragan Klaic – is “(that) it can shape a critical look at the world – the big, wide world – and at its key challenges and threats, sharing its own experiences and insights with the domestic audience, pulling them away from complacency and oblivion that the commercial theatre regularly seeks to engineer.”

This encapsulates beautifully the goal of Theatron.

Lars Seeberg

Lars Seeberg, Theatron

Find out more in the Culture.Shift Workbook