Theatre Critic and Journalist

Can audience feedback play a role in theatre?

Can audience feedback play a role in theatre?

Published on the Guardian Theatre Blog, 12.05.2010

Two weeks ago, on entering a fringe theatre that shall remain nameless, I was handed a feedback form. It asked, “How would you rate the show out of five?” As if recognising that a numerical value alone was not information enough, the company also wanted to know whether individual audience members had enjoyed a) the acting, b) the theme/script, c) the production and d) the venue, inviting us in each case to answer a) yes, b) no or c) no opinion.

Now, by all means accuse me of enjoying the sound of my own critical faculties, but this seems a tad reductive. Leaving aside the difficulties of separating the individual elements of a production for judgement, to beg such questions is to treat theatre as a cleaning product that seeks to guarantee satisfaction. What, really, does a theatre company hope to learn from such a survey? Do they sack the performer after negative opinion polls? Do they give the writer an open commission after good ones?

Admittedly, this particular production was deemed a finished article; this sudden urge to collect audience response was, presumably, because it could help funding applications or be used as a marketing tool. “Scratch” and work-in-progress performances, by contrast, seek to use audience response for the furtherance of the work itself, as part of an ongoing process. Scratch culture has been hotly debated, accused variously of demonstrating a lack of confidence on the part of the performers, or of pandering slavishly to the likes and dislikes of its audiences. I don’t wish to reignite that topic here, but it seems obvious that, for scratch performances to function properly, the feedback process requires consideration.

Scratch provides an opportunity for practitioners to think about the show they have made, rather than the one they think they’re making. For a company genuinely invested in such showings, the ideal response is the honest, unguarded one. What a company wants to hear, or what they expect to hear, is not the same as what they ought to hear. But how to elicit such a response, particularly given that audiences generally need prompting to engage with artists?

At the Battersea Arts Centre, which has been pioneering scratch culture for a decade, this question is clearly of primary concern. As part of its current Scratch festival, the venue is trialling a number of feedback avenues. Alongside the traditional forms, audience members can opt to tweet their thoughts using the #scratchfestival hashtag, scribble them on blackboards in the building or – rather wonderfully – pick up the special Scratch phone in the foyer. It’s even possible to leave a message at a later date. At every performance, one audience member also wins a Wonka-esque golden ticket entitling them to two free drinks on the condition of sharing them with the artist – a speed date with instant feedback.

So, no questionnaires here. The upshot is a permissive structure that aims to open a space for genuine interchange and dialogue between artists and audience. Our opinions are taken seriously by allowing us both space and time to set them down as we see fit. That’s not to say that the simple feedback form has no place, but it must show self-awareness by posing genuinely open, interested and unsteering questions. Without such structures, without a willingness to accommodate and encourage, feedback all too easily abuses its audience. We may not be the scientists, but we’re more than lab rats under observation.

Photograph: Robert Daly

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