We decided to catch up with Kirsty Sedgman, author of our latest release, Locating the Audience: How People Found Value in National Theatre Wales to find out more about her book.
Could you tell us a bit about your new book, Locating the Audience.
Locating the Audience explores the very first season of National Theatre Wales. It studies how people throughout Wales and beyond developed relationships with this brand new national theatre, and asks questions such as: what do people think national theatre is for? How do they see the place of theatre in the nation, as well as within their own lives? As John McGrath (NTW’s founding Artistic Director) points out in his foreword, though, Locating the Audience actually focuses on two specific productions in detail: For Mountain, Sand & Sea, which took audiences on a walking tour of Barmouth, and The Persians, playwright Kaite O’Reilly's modern reworking of Aeschylus’ ancient Greek drama performed on a military range in the Brecon Beacons. My research investigated how different audiences understood and responded to the experience of taking part in these very different site-specific events.
What was the inspiration behind this book?
I come from a theatre studies background, where there is a real reluctance to research the experiences of diverse audience members - beyond the responses of professionally implicated commentators, that is. This book grew out of an increasing frustration with the tendency to talkabout audiences rather than to them. This critical myopia frequently leads to the production of big assumptions about ‘the audience’, with academics often resorting to making unqualified claims on behalf of the theatrical experience. Thankfully, I started this research at the same time as a cluster of researchers began to feel similarly dissatisfied. The influential cultural value projects that have come to fruition over the last half-decade or so are a clear sign that the way we think about value is changing. In this book I was keen to question the usefulness of a term like ‘value’ at all: in the sense that value is often positioned as intrinsic to the arts object, fixed and finite. Rather than value, perhaps we might instead think about ‘valuations’: because as I tried to show in this book, individuals drawing on diverse subject positions will necessarily understand and talk about the same arts experience in very different ways. This sounds obvious, perhaps – but I believe by studying howpeople articulate their responses to theatre, listening as they reach for words to describe the indescribable, we can get a sense of these various meaning-making processes in action. And in doing so, I hope we can begin to dismantle the idea that there are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ responses to arts events: a concern I found to be very keenly-felt in the responses of less culturally confident audience members, as you’ll see.
Do you have a favourite chapter and if so, why?
One of the knottiest chapters, yet the one of which I’m probably proudest, is For Mountain, Sand & Sea. I say knotty because it’s admittedly pretty dense, weaving together dozens of questionnaire responses and interview quotations, and drawing out shared key features from a lot of scattered discourse. But I like it because this case study offers the clearest example of a tension I found between two kinds of expertise. In this chapter I show how local expertise, coming from residents’ extensive lived knowledge of Barmouth and its history, rubbed up uncomfortably against their parallel awareness of professional theatrical expertise, as National Theatre Wales sought to perform aspects of the town’s stories in creative, experimental ways. By going deep into audience talk, analysing how people frame their pleasures and disappointments, I’ve worked to uncover the difficulty some audiences face in articulating alternative hopes for what their national theatre might do. This tension was especially acute because the performance was not just a random play, but was specifically inspired by that location (albeit in oblique and artistic ways). I was therefore able to begin to ask what it means for audiences to feel themselves to be located in and through performance, and how this conflicts or coincides with their own understandings of place. But having said all that, I’m also pretty pleased with the Preface, if only because it starts with the immortal quote: “If you close theatres you become the Taliban!”. To me, that sums up just how passionately certain people believe in the importance of theatre – while as I go on to show, others are less invested in this idea…
What is your academic background?
I have a First Class degree in Drama & Theatre Arts from the University of Birmingham, and I then went on to do the Creative Writing MA at Warwick University. Both were great courses, but we spent a lot of time musing about what ‘the audience’ or ‘the reader’ might have thought about different cultural texts. It’s not until I met Prof. Martin Barker at Aberystwyth, my PhD supervisor and one of the most well-known audience researchers in the world, that I realised there was an alternative: the rich cultural studies tradition of using empirical studies to capture discursive information on actual audience response. It was serendipitous, really; right time, right place. I was very lucky.
Do you have plans for future books?
I love writing. It’s that simple; I just can’t imagine doing anything else. Something people ask me a lot is if I’m ever planning on ditching the academic stuff to go back to my creative writing roots, as per my MA. But one of the things this process has taught me is that, academic or creative, it’s all just telling stories. And of course, as an audience researcher I'm keenly aware that I can never truly know anyone else's response. In putting their reactions into words they’re interpreting that experience for me, and I am then in turn applying my own interpretation. But as I explain in the book, I’m most interested in word use; in listening not just to what people say but to how they phrase it, and in considering the implications of any gaps, slippages, hesitations, certainties and uncertainties of expression. It all stems from an enduring fascination with language. So yes, I can’t imagine not writing more books! Plus, there’s so much we still don’t know about our relationship with culture.
Are you attending any conferences or events?
I’ll be speaking at the Understanding Everyday Participation conference, 'Doing Research on Participation’. I’ll also be at Fan Studies 2016, as well as at Regency Theatre 2016, organised by the Society for Theatre Research (of whom I’m a Committee Member), plus the annual Theatre & Performance Research Association (TaPRA) conference.
Have you read any Intellect books? If so, which is your favourite Intellect book at the moment?
Intellect was always my first choice to publish Locating the Audience. The reason for this was primarily my admiration for The Audience Experience, the 2013 collection edited by Jennifer Radbourne, Hilary Glow, and Katya Johanson. This brought together a range of chapters by different authors, exploring varying approaches to audience research and engagement. Its focus is strongly methodological, offering insights into the different ways that audiences' reactions can be captured and understood, while in Locating the Audience I aimed to produce the first full-length study of people’s detailed engagements with one specific theatre company – but still, I was very inspired by the excellent chapters in this book. I’m also pleased to have had the chance to work with the same people who publish Studies in Musical Theatre and Journal of Fandom Studies. Although very different journals, what they share is a real drive to take seriously the pleasures produced by cultural texts. That’s where my work is situated: on the side of audiences, taking seriously their pleasures and disappointments, their investments and their resistance.