The art of getting bums on seats

Now Showing was set up as a partnership project between Ideas Test and Applause Rural Touring. Applause and Ideas Test both aim to provide accessibility to arts in a variety of ways. This work was designed to build on Applause’s expertise in supporting communities to bring professional artists to familiar venues such as parish halls and schools. Extra funding from Ideas Test made the activity completely risk free in the first instance and gave promoters confidence to repeat the activity with a small reserve pot from the tickets sold.

When I started to work on the project at the end of 2014 my job was to find new volunteers to host events in Swale and Medway and to support to the work. Since then the new network has had 26 events with local audiences meeting national established averages and ticket income more than matching the investment added. The performance types have been completely varied and people have been able to see children’s contemporary dance, circus in a small hall and a 5 piece Jazz band.

Now there is a group of local promoters who regularly book work in their shared spaces and I have been working on new ways to support the network. This summer we were able to bring Adrienne Pye from the Audience Agency into No.34 to talk to us about planning programmes to keep and grow audiences.

Audience Agency is a national organisation funded by the government to offer advice and resources to anyone who works in cultural activity. Though many of their clients are big theatres the information is just as useful for volunteer promoters! Better than that, lots of their advice is posted online and it’s free.

If Audience Development is new to you it’s a different process to marketing. These days we sell performances using all sorts of media from Instagram to the (still) faithful flier. However – there is an art to making the programme decisions which relies on:

  • Really knowing who comes to events through conversations and hard statistics!
  • Choosing artists who will be interesting to current audiences and bring in new people
  • Keeping the overall group mission statement close at hand

Across the 4-hour session we talked about lots of details that were specific to the work our promoters are doing but lots of the issues they identified would be familiar to others from North to South and Small to Large Scale venues such as:

  • Turning audience’s interest to audience’s attendance can be difficult
  • Looking for tactics to negotiate the external factors such as the clash of a big sporting or TV event
  • Finding ways to make people book ahead rather than turn up on the day!

It was a great luxury to be able to devote that time to swopping ideas and experiences. Some of the comments that inspired me personally were “Sometimes its about the language” and “Lateral Thinking has been useful – we made a heritage walking trail from the station brings audience members in to the venue” and “I want to build a local feeling where people will start to look for the events rather than I end up cajoling them to come – it’s about changing a mindset”

If you would like to find out more, Audience Agency Session with Adrienne Pye.

If you book cultural events in the community in Swale and Medway and would like to join us next time we will be Finding out about funding. Contact Beth for more details. There are more plans in progress – now we’ve got an Audience Development Plan (for promoters) of our own!

Bethan Tomlinson is Ideas Test’s Now Showing Co-ordinator.