Audiences – Without Them There Is Nothing

I used that very sentence recently at a meeting of the team here at Lincoln Drill Hall. Audiences are the key to the success of any performance.  Sounds simple and obvious I know, but it never hurts to remind ourselves that looking after our audiences is such an important part of our job.

In a venue that stages over 400 events each year and with a programme that includes theatre, dance, children’s and family work, literature, music across a range of sub genres from folk to rock, classical to jazz, stand-up comedy and more besides our audience we might naturally assume is quite different depending upon what is happening in the venue.  But that isn’t always the case.  There are some clear similarities between audiences.  Not least that they have all come to be entertained, to learn, to experience culture in whatever form that may take and to go away I hope, satisfied, enriched and crucially with a sense of belief in what we’re trying to achieve and above all, trust in the venue.

Trust.  That is the important word for me.  Our mission statement talks about programming a mix of what people will like alongside work they don’t yet know they’ll like.  Without trust, we’re fighting a losing battle to get audiences to take a risk on something they’re unsure of, something that might challenge them as an audience member in different ways.  And therein lies the central challenge we, along with community venues across the country face.  I believe we do well in garnering that trust.  When we introduced circus theatre into our programme, with companies such as Ockham’s Razor that was a big risk for us.  But audiences trusted us, came with us and experienced something wondrous and unique in the city.  Now we can programme that company and others like it with much more confidence that we can gain significant audiences for that work.

I believe that the Drill Hall is well respected, thought of and loved by our community.  The building is nearly 125 years old, has served a number of functions from army training, to makeshift hospital to entertainment venue to arts centre.  People who live here have a number of very different connections with us.  There are those who remember The Rolling Stones playing here in the 60’s, or Wrestling and Roller discos in the 80’s or the building in a pretty run down state by the turn of the Millenium.  There are those for whom their current engagement comes through Lincoln Beer Festival or a regular Vintage Fair.  The people who live in our city feel, quite rightly that they have a stake in the building, that it is part of them so we have a serious job to do in keeping and building on that trust.

Lyn Gardner wrote a blog recently in which she discussed audiences, venue and producers relationships with them and whether we should trust them more and involve them more in programming decisions.  We have taken a few small steps along that road.  We run a village reps forum, a group of supporters of the venue who meet regularly and discuss and feedback on the work that they’ve seen, things they like and more importantly don’t like around the building and the programme.  We welcome suggestions of artists and performers that they’ve seen or heard about and have (albeit occasionally) programmed based on their suggestions.  That group in turn acts as ambassadors for the venue in their own communities across the wider city and county, putting up posters and flyers whilst encouraging others to attend.  We’re in the early stages of replicating that group from a cohort of students from one of the Universities in the City.

We run Fretless, a young programmers group, giving them space to discuss and develop their own work for performance in the venue, whilst also encouraging them to seek out work that they might want to see.  On the 12 February we’re hosting The Paper Birds and their wonderful show Broke, programmed on the back of recommendations from this group having seen the show in Edinburgh last summer.

We tried a more general Audience Panel, an open house discussion forum for audiences, which had three very dedicated attendees, but didn’t stretch beyond that.  We stopped that, but are open to new ways of engaging audiences. These are perhaps drops in the ocean compared with some of the ideas Lyn discusses in her piece, but I think we’re developing ways to engage that feel right for us now.  We’re asking our audiences to trust us, and in turn we know that we need to trust them as well.  After all what is The Drill Hall about?  Art, Audience, Experience.

So we will continue to develop new ways to listen to our audiences, to involve them in their venue and to work with them to make the Drill Hall thrive.