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Involving the audience


Involving the audience is one thing, but Charlotte Handel is trying to get the whole community around the Theatre Royal Stratford East involved in programming a season of work. She explains the thinking behind the scheme.

Opening the stage

Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE) is situated in the heart of Newham, East London – officially the UK’s youngest and most diverse borough. The theatre produces seven shows a year; tours work nationally and internationally; runs a youth arts programme and musical theatre initiative; works with emerging artists, and develops new work. Ever since Joan Littlewood arrived at TRSE in 1953, developing the principles of her Theatre Workshop, the venue has been committed to creating theatre that connects with its local community. The ambition is to draw from and reflect the community’s aspirations and concerns, giving space to voices traditionally unheard on stage.

Image of an excited audience


Throughout 2010 and 2011, the theatre is planning to undertake the biggest consultation and public curating project of any theatre in the UK. ‘Open Stage’ will open up the programming of TRSE, culminating in a six-month season of work suggested by the public, which is as likely to see the development of brand new work as it is to stage revivals of much-loved shows. Handing over control of programming is a logical extension of the theatre’s philosophy of inspiring and being inspired by its audience, but it is also driven by a wish to ensure that it remains relevant and responsive to those it serves within its unique location.

As one of five Olympic boroughs, Newham is undergoing dramatic redevelopment. The Olympic park is just on our doorstep, and it is impossible to ignore the regenerational impact that the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will bring. TRSE has experience of engaging with an increasingly diverse community over a 50-year-period of constant demographic change, and we have a duty to continue learning from and speaking with the people around us. It will be by understanding and developing relationships with the new communities around us that we can better respond to the legacy of the Olympics. The effects of the Games in Newham will be profound; while many will be specific to this theatre, the challenges of responding to overall changing UK demographics are not. The UK theatre ecology is still far from matching its demographic profile. Building on current thinking about audience development, public engagement in the arts, and the governmental drive to empower and involve communities in the decisions that affect them, we want to examine ideas about audiences, art and engagement – and what that actually means for the person walking through our door for an evening out.


Cultural organisations are increasingly turning to their public to help shape the art that they are creating: from museums and galleries using the internet to crowd-source ideas and co-curate exhibitions to the youth-led programming of ‘TakeOver’ at York Theatre Royal and the ‘Fan-Made Theatre’ model developed by London Bubble. Participation and audience development have long been at the heart of cultural organisations, but the movement towards co-curation and co-creation signals a shift in the power between organisations and their audiences – paralleled by national and local government strategies to consult and shape the services they provide with the people who consume them.

So who are we engaging with, and how are we actually going to do it? Forty-five per cent of our London audience live in Newham (excluding our free bar programme of comedy, music and spoken word whose audience is almost all from Newham), but co-productions, national tours and West End transfers have all broadened our audience reach. Be it the young people who take part in the youth theatre, the cast, technical and creative teams that create the work onstage, or staff and local residents, we want to engage with our community in its widest sense.


The start of 2010 has seen us researching, scoping and mapping the Open Stage project. We have talked with specialist consultants, others who have done similar work, or those that promote engagement at the heart of what they do. We want to build an organic and integrated process of debate, consultation and selection, and to explore methods new to us but still balance marketing and fundraising deadlines with the time it takes to create and develop work for the stage. We will be piloting consultation activity until October, giving at least 200 people a better understanding of how the theatre programmes its work. We will also test a range of questions and a variety of consultation methods including ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ and ‘Open Space Technology’. Following this pilot’s evaluation, Open Stage will be launched in early 2011.

In handing over power to the public we want to challenge the core of what we do, how we do it and why. This learning will inform the way we work in the future, and by plotting the project’s progress and process, and documenting our testing, monitoring and evaluation throughout, we hope that others might take something from our experience. Open Stage will be a challenge, and the only thing we definitely expect is the unexpected. Just as we cannot predict what the public-programmed season will be, we don’t yet know how Open Stage will change the way we work, but we are committed to learning from it.

CHARLOTTE HANDEL is Head of Open Stage at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
E chandel@stratfordeast.com
W www.stratfordeast.com

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disability equality in the arts