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Audience Experience in an Anti-expert Age: A Survey of Theatre Audience Research



Researchers who seek to capture and analyse audiences’ responses are facing a dilemma. In a political climate beleaguered by efforts to delegitimize expertise, what are the implications for a research tradition that seeks to understand cultural value from a range of diverse perspectives? In light of visibility generated by the 2009 publication of Helen Freshwater's Theatre & Audience and the subsequent launch in January 2017 of the international Network for Audience Research in the Performing Arts (iNARPA), the time seems ripe for a detailed critical overview of the audience studies discipline as it has been applied to theatre. In providing that survey, this article contends that the early decades of the new millennium have seen research into arts participation becoming trapped between two colliding agendas. Whereas on the one hand there is a growing pressure to celebrate cultural engagement in all its contradictory forms, there has on the other hand been a simultaneous imperative within the arts to push back against the encroaching de-hierarchization of cultural value beyond critical and scholarly perspectives. By revealing the potentials for and limitations of the field, this article queries how future audience research projects might productively investigate audience experience without diminishing the legitimacy of expert knowledge.



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1 See, for example, Henry Mance, ‘Britain Has Had Enough of Experts, Says Gove’, Financial Times, 3 June 2016, at, accessed 2 September 2017.

2 Nichols, Tom, The Death of Expertise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

3 Blancke, Stefaan, Boudry, Maarten and Pigliucci, Massimo, ‘Why Do Irrational Beliefs Mimic Science?’, Theoria, 83, 1 (2017), pp. 7897, here p. 92.

4 Jonathan Chait, ‘The Oddly Snobbish Anti-intellectualism of Donald Trump’, New York Magazine, 26 October 2016, at, accessed 2 September 2017.

5 Not all research into theatre audiences has grown directly out of the ‘audience studies’ tradition. Some theatre audience researchers are embedded in alternative traditions of arts management, cultural policy, marketing or ethnography; the comments on methodological and analytical approaches in this article therefore do not presume to speak for everyone. Instead, the intention is to provide a critical background for understanding the cultural studies trajectory of audience research that Helen Freshwater describes as ‘characterised by a rejection of the notion of “the audience” as a singular or homogenous entity, a detailed interrogation of diverse and sometimes unexpected responses, and an ethnographic engagement with the range of cultural conditions which inform an individual's viewing position’. Freshwater, Helen, Theatre & Audience (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 28.

6 Belfiore, Eleonora, ‘On Bullshit in Cultural Policy Practice and Research’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 15, 3 (2009), pp. 343–59, here p. 348. Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992).

7 For more on the tension between intrinsic and instrumental models of value see the literature review provided by Holden, John, Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy: Why Culture Needs a Democratic Mandate (London: Demos, 2006), pp. 167.

8 Geoffrey Crossick and Patrycja Kaszynska, ‘Understanding the Value of Arts & Culture: The AHRC Cultural Value Project’, AHRC (2016), at, accessed 5 January 2017.

9 Fun Palaces, ‘About’, at, accessed 7 September 2017.

10 For valuable examples of ‘amateur’ and ‘community’ culture see, for example, Jeffers, Alison and Moriarty, Gerri, eds., Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

11 For a detailed intellectual history of shifting expert conceptions of artistic value see Belfiore and Bennett, Oliver, The Social Impact of the Arts (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

12 Silvia, Paul J., ‘Interested Experts, Confused Novices’, Empirical Studies of the Arts, 31, 1 (2013), pp. 107–15, here p. 108.

13 Freshwater, Theatre & Audience, p. 4.

14 McGrath, John E., ‘Foreword’, in Sedgman, Kirsty, Locating the Audience (Bristol: Intellect, 2016), pp. viiix, here p. vii.

15 Reinelt, Janelle, ‘What UK Spectators Know: Understanding How We Come to Value Theatre’, Theatre Journal, 66, 3 (2014), pp. 337–61. Freshwater, Theatre & Audience, p. 27.

16 Reinelt, ‘What UK Spectators Know’, p. 338.

17 Ibid., p. 338. See also, for example, Barker, Martin and Mathijs, Ernest, ‘Researching World Audiences: The Experience of a Complex Methodology’, Participations, 9, 2 (2012), pp. 664–89.

18 Reinelt, ‘What UK Spectators Know’, p. 338.

19 Biocca, Frank, ‘Opposing Conceptions of the Audience’, in Anderson, James A., ed., Communication Yearbook 11 (Abingdon: SAGE Publications, 2012), pp. 5180, here p. 56.

20 Butsch, Richard, The Citizen Audience: Crowds, Publics and Individuals (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 1.

21 Rosengren, Klaus Bruhn and Jensen, Karl Erik, ‘Five Traditions in Search of the Audience’, European Journal of Communication, 5, 2 (1990), pp. 207–38, here p. 208.

22 U & G only really came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s through the work of researchers such as Elihu Katz and Denis McQuail, who aimed to produce a system by which people's needs could be classified and thereby met. A useful explication of the advances and limitations of the U & G approach is provided by Morley, David, ‘Changing Paradigms in Audience Studies’, in Seiter, Ellen, ed., Remote Control: Television, Audiences, and Cultural Power (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 1643 , while an overall summary of how the social and political forces of different nations shaped the development of their respective research approaches can be found in Gunter's, Barry Media Research Methods (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 1999).

23 Williams, Raymond, Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso, 1989), pp. 1314.

24 Fiske, John, Television Culture (London: Methuen & Co, 1987), p. 272.

25 Morley, David, The Nationwide Audience (London: BFI, 1980). Hall, Stuart and Jefferson, Tony, Resistance through Rituals (Routledge: London, 1993). Hoggart, Richard, The Uses of Literacy (London: Transaction Publishers, 2004). McRobbie, Angela and Garber, Jenny, Girls and Subcultures (London: Routledge, 1977). Radway, Janice, Reading the Romance (New York: University of North Carolina Press, 1984). Ang, Ien, Watching Dallas (London: Methuen, 1985).

26 Sholle, David, ‘Reading the Audience, Reading Resistance’, Journal of Film and Video, 43, 1 (1991), pp. 80–9, here p. 81.

27 Sauter, Willmar, The Theatrical Event: Dynamics of Performance and Perception (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014).

28 See, for example, Lindelof, Anja Mølle and Hansen, Louise Ejgod, ‘Talking about Theatre: Audience Development through Dialogue’, Participations, 12, 1 (May 2014), pp. 234–53.

29 Tulloch, John, Shakespeare and Chekhov in Production and Reception: Theatrical Events and Their Audiences (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005). Reason, Matthew, The Young Audience: Exploring and Enhancing Children's Experiences of Theatre (Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books, 2010). Kippax, Susan, ‘Women as Audience’, in Scannell, Paddy, Schlesinger, Philip and Sparks, Colin, eds., Culture and Power (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 1992), pp. 239–56. Barker, Martin, ‘ Crash, Theatre Audiences, and the Idea of “Liveness”’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 23, 1 (2003), pp. 2139.

30 Walmsley, Ben, ‘“A Big Part of my Life”: A Qualitative Study of the Impact of Theatre’, Arts Marketing: An International Journal, 3, 1 (2013), pp. 7387 . Radbourne, Jennifer, Glow, Hilary and Johanson, Katya, The Audience Experience: A Critical Analysis of Audiences in the Performing Arts (Bristol: Intellect, 2013). Caroline Heim, Audience as Performer: The Changing Role of Theatre Audiences in the Twenty-First Century (London: Routledge, 2015).

31 Freshwater, Theatre & Audience, p. 3.

32 Megson, Chris and Reinelt, Janelle, ‘Performance, Experience, Transformation’, Journal of Contemporary Drama in English, 4, 1 (2016), pp. 227–42. Wilkinson, Julie, ‘Dissatisfied Ghosts: Theatre Spectatorship and the Production of Cultural Value’, Participations, 12, 1 (May 2015), pp. 133–53.

33 Radbourne, Glow and Johanson, The Audience Experience. Shakespeare's Globe, ‘Current Research Projects’, at (2017), accessed 5 September 2017. British Academy, ‘Postdoctoral Fellowships – 2016 Awards’, at (2016), accessed 5 September 2017. Wozniak, Jan, The Politics of Performing Shakespeare for Young People (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016). O'Malley, Evelyn, ‘You Do (Not) Assist the Storm: A Vibrant and Affective Seascape for The Tempest at Minack, Cornwall’, Performance Research, 21, 2 (2016), pp. 81–4. Barrett, Maria, Our Place: Class, the Theatre Audience and the Royal Court Liverpool (London: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming). Biggin, Rose, Immersive Theatre and Audience Experience (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

34 Johanson, Katya and Glow, Hilary, ‘A Virtuous Circle’, Participations 12, 1 (2015), pp. 254–70. See, for example, David Osa Amadasun's ‘Black People Don't Go to Galleries’, Media Diversified, at, accessed 7 September 2017, also cited in Johanson and Glow's article, which demonstrates the restrictive power of arts institutions for many people of colour.

35 Asiedu, Awo Mana, ‘The Money Was Real Money’, Theatre Research International, 41, 2 (2016), pp. 151–67.

36 Alston, Adam, Beyond Immersive Theatre: Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 26. Emphasis in original.

37 Susan Melrose, ‘Words Fail Me: Dancing with the Other's Familiar’, at, accessed 7 September 2017.

38 Dolan, Jill, Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005), p. 26.

39 Ruddock, Andy, Investigating Audiences (London: SAGE Publications, 2007), p. 1.

40 Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator (London: Verso, 2009).

41 Rancière, Jacques, The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991). Rancière's framework developed against distinct frustrations with the work of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu's model of ‘cultural capital’ famously embeds culture within a field of struggle: one that works to exclude those who, without the requisite forms of cultural capital, are unable to ‘decode’ aesthetic experience. While recognizing ideological power structures similarly, as Caroline Pelletier points out, Rancière nonetheless disagreed with Bourdieu's starting point: ‘a position in which inequality is assumed’. In other words, Rancière's challenge was to the Bourdieuian model's politically neutered potentiality, which viewed inequality as the inevitable consequence of antagonistic knowledge. Rancière argued that in order to achieve equality we must work ‘to assume it, to affirm it, to have it as one's epistemological starting point, and to then systematically verify it’. Caroline Pelletier, ‘Emancipation, Equality and Education’, Discourse, 30, 2 (2009), pp. 137–50, here p. 142.

42 Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, p. 13.

43 Martin Barker, ‘I Have Seen the Future and it is Not Here Yet. . .; Or, on Being Ambitious for Audience Research’, The Communication Review, 9, 2 (2006), pp. 123–41, here p. 134.

44 It is worth noting that theatre studies is not the first to develop such creative techniques. To offer just a few such instances: in Watching Dallas Ang reports receiving forty-two letters in response to a magazine advert; Barker's study of 2000AD readers involved posting respondents a sheet of questions and a blank audio cassette; and Karen Wood's research into Strictly Come Dancing asked respondents to keep a ten-week diary of personal reflections on the show. Barker, Martin, ‘Kicked into the Gutters’, International Journal of Comic Art, 4, 1 (2002), pp. 6477 ; Wood, Karen, ‘An Investigation into Audiences’ Televisual Experience of Strictly Come Dancing ’, Participations, 7, 2 (2010), pp. 262–91.

45 Gröschel, Uwe, ‘Researching Audiences through Walking Fieldwork’, Participations, 12, 1 (May 2015), pp. 349–67.

46 Matthew Reason, ‘Where in Your Body?’, at, accessed 5 January 2017.

47 Lisa Baxter, Daragh O'Reilly and Elizabeth Carnegie, ‘Innovative Methods of Inquiry into Arts Engagement’, in Radbourne, Glow and Johanson, The Audience Experience, pp. 113–28.

48 Stella Duffy, ‘Excellence in the Arts Should Not Be Defined by the Metropolitan Elite’, The Guardian, 30 June 2017, at, accessed 2 September 2017.

49 Jim Aitchison. ‘Response to Stella Duffy on the Arts, Elitism, and Communities’, 6 July 2017, at, accessed 2 September 2017.

50 Reinelt, ‘What UK Spectators Know’, p. 338.

51 See also Goode, Chris, ‘The Audience Is Listening’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 21, 4 (2011), pp. 464–71, here p. 468. Kosidowski, Paul, ‘Thinking through the Audience’, Theatre Topics, 13, 1, pp. 8386, here p. 84. Goode and Kosidowski both valuably critique the lowest-common-denominator position, arguing that listening to audiences does not necessarily present the risk to theatre that is often assumed.

52 McConachie, Bruce and Elizabeth Hart, F., Performance and Cognition: Theatre Studies and the Cognitive Turn (London: Routledge, 2006), p. ix.

53 Reason, Matthew, ‘Asking the Audience: Audience Research and the Experience of Theatre’, About Performance, 10 (2010), 1534, here p. 26.

54 See Sedgman, Locating the Audience, for a more thoroughly grounded explanation.

55 Ibid, p. 87.

56 Ibid, p. 86.

57 I was able to explore this argument in much more detail in my article ‘Ladies and Gentlemen Follow Me, Please Put on Beards’, Your, Contemporary Theatre Review, 27, 2 (2017), pp. 158–76.

58 Sedgman, Locating the Audience, pp. 164–65.

59 Old Vic and Sadler's Wells Trust, Annual Reports for Season 1948–1949, University of Bristol Theatre Collection, OV/F/000038, p. 5.

60 John Moody, letter dated 14 August 1958 to Peter Shaffer about his play The Salt Land, University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Box 521.

61 Sedgman, Locating the Audience, p. 21.

62 Matt Trueman, ‘Why I'm Worried about the Decline of Theatre Blogs’, The Stage, 15 December 2016, at, accessed 21 November 2017.

63 Ibid.

64 See, for example, the critiques cited earlier by Goode, ‘The Audience Is Listening’; Kosidowski, ‘Thinking through the Audience’.

65 Freshwater, Theatre & Audience, p. 6.

66 Kosidowski, ‘Thinking through the Audience’, p. 84.

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