Devoted & Disgruntled: Audience Wellbeing

How can we better look after our audiences?

This was my first D & D and I hadn’t planned on calling a session, however after hearing sessions called around artist wellbeing, mental health and supporting neurodiverse audiences and performers, I felt compelled to call a session on audience wellbeing. In a panic I came up with a really crap title. 

I called this session from a position of a theatre company creating and touring a piece of work exploring ADHD, mental health and diagnosis who are currently exploring practices, systems and environments which can support and enhance audience wellbeing.

As well as from my experience as an audience member who has left a few performances in recent years feeling vulnerable and not very well looked after. One experience resulted in me leaving the performance with my partner, running around the back of the theatre and falling to the floor in a heap of tears as I couldn’t face being in the chaos of the foyer. After another performance I felt unable to leave the space and found myself sobbing under the bright lights of the auditorium as audiences passed, eye balling me with concern or discomfort.

I was interested to find out where people think responsibility for audience wellbeing lies; with venues, artists, audiences? And particularly the ways in which artists and venues can better support audience wellbeing, both in the context of presenting potentially “triggering” work, but also in a wider sense of creating a more holistic approach to audience experience as opposed to a transactional “customer experience”. 

A group of 3 people gather around wellbeing activities in Art with Heart's wellbeing room, SPACE.

Decompression Spaces

A small but perfectly-formed group joined me, here are some of our thoughts:

– We would welcome a decompression space for audience members to use post-performance, preferably a space between the theatre and social space, which would allow audiences to ground themselves before the hustle of the foyer or the nightbus home.

Examples cited-

1) Gecko partnering with local Mind groups who hosted ‘Gecko corner’ in theatre foyers after ‘Institute’ to support audience members.

2) Art with Heart’s wellbeing room, facilitated by a mental health worker which is open before, during and post-performance of ‘Declaration’.

3) Commonwealth’s Our Glasshouse; site-specific work which explored domestic violence, set within a house. Audiences were told at the beginning that they would all reconvene in the front room to sit together and talk. At first this was uncomfortable for the person who shared, however by the end of the 30 minutes they left feeling much calmer.

Information and dissemination 

– Having a third party host the aforementioned spaces, who is not a member of the company or attached to the venue, can offer freedom for audiences as the focus is solely on their care and experience, not on an exchange with the company or pressure to offer feedback.

– We enjoy the dark of the cinema; how extensive credits give us permission to just sit for a while and digest. We asked if theatres could pay technical staff to stay on longer to allow audiences to stay in the space if needed if the venue doesn’t have an alternate quiet space. 

– We discussed the importance of information – artists and companies sharing as much information as possible with venues to ensure they are prepared and aware of the content of the work. This should be sent via the usual channels of marketing and programming, however often the information does not get disseminated to the people who are on the ground in the building during performances; box office and front of house teams need to be briefed by venue staff and companies.

– We discussed how to make the house rules clear for audiences, following on conversations of ‘audience etiquette’ from other sessions. If we make it clear that audiences can leave, that they do not have to take part in interactive sections, that there are spaces available for them to go to, then we remove anxieties and they can become ‘authors of their own experience’.

A group of people gather to listen to a public speech.

Sarah speaks with an audience member

Disclosure and responsibility

Post Performance Talks 

– Post-Performance talks and panels need to be given much more consideration. We shared  examples of discussions we had experienced as audience members and one’s which we had been part of as performers which did not feel safe or comfortable for audiences or panellists. We discussed the importance of an experienced and prepared chair, one who knows the work but is not too emotionally attached to it. A chair who can construct questions which spark interesting conversation and debate, yet are safe for audiences and performers to answer.

Examples cited- a company who had used directors, visiting venue staff and producers to chair a panel on tour. The Producer chaired the most effective panel as they knew the work well enough to steer conversations, but were a step removed from the rehearsal room and creative process.

– Experts can be useful and valuable to conversations around particular subjects, however it’s important they know what to expect and are not seeing the work, processing and responding at the same rate as the audience. They need a level of distance and preparation if they are to chair effectively and considerately.

Audiences often disclose personal experiences and information to performers. It is important audiences feel they can have a dialogue with companies presenting the work, as they have opened those lines of conversation and thought. However it can be overwhelming for performers, particularly when presenting autobiographical work, and if disclosures highlight an audience member at risk that can be a huge responsibility. 

– We discussed having pre-written responses ready for audiences which guide them to support services and those better placed to offer advice, whilst also acknowledging gratitude that they have reached out. This is a practical way for artists and companies to respond to written disclosures.

– Post-performance Q & A facilitators can help construct boundaries around audience response and disclosure for autobiographical work by acknowledging the importance of decompression space for performers. 

– Independent companies and artists face tight budgets which make it hard to implement practices, often they are unable to get third party support, especially on tour. Clear and honest communication with venues could help, asking what support they are able to offer that you may be unaware of. 

Sarah stands on stage looking anxious, an audience surrounds her.

Sarah is barefoot onstage in a studio theatre. She hands a small yellow bell to an audience member while the rest of the audience look on.


Examples cited

1) Art with Heart worked with a member of venue staff who hosted Q&A and help set boundaries for audiences on the premiere of autobiographical work ‘Declaration’. Audiences were not discouraged from connecting with the performer, however they were more considered in their approach and as a result more useful dialogues took place. 

2) A young audience member disclosed information of a damaging personal experiences to an artist which left the artist in a difficult position in knowing who to pass the information onto, they needed to consider confidentiality and also the safety of the audience member and the line of communication and responsibility was unclear.

3) “So often we ask audiences to leave their comfort zones and come into ours”.

Audience responsibility

Audience members choose to enter spaces and conversations willingly, however though they may think they know what they are signing up for, they cannot predict their response, and there is still a collective responsibility by those presenting the work (companies and venues) to consider the audiences wellbeing.

*Example cited of good practice from Vaccum Cleaner and his work ‘Mental’; an autobiographical performance told through the performers psychiatric records, presented in his  bedroom to a small audience. The artist employed two people – one to look after him after each performance and one to look after the audience. The audience could stay in the space after the performance for a while, whilst the performer would have a space of their own in another room with support.

– Perhaps we could take a more creative approach to presenting this material, to help encourage more people to engage with it.

*Example cited of Vaccum Cleaner listing support numbers alongside a track list from the show. “Some people need support, some people need to go home turn the music up and dance to disco.” 

Thanks to all who attended the session. Anyone wishing to carry on the conversation, you can contact me.

A packed audience at The Lowry Studio Theatre