How accidental audiences respond to pop up dance performances

Site-specific and pop up events have become increasingly common ways for cultural organisations to develop their offer and find new ways to engage audiences

Client
Eight Central London Boroughs working together as the Central Arts Partnership (CAP).

Outline brief & objectives
Over recent years site-specific and pop up events have become increasingly common ways for cultural organisations to develop their offer and find new ways to engage audiences. With this shift to non-traditional spaces, there has been an associated change in the relationship between audiences and performers.

A key part of this change has been the concept of what it means to be an ‘accidental audience’ member; someone who chances upon a performance without any prior knowledge or expectation of what it involves. Through this project we wanted to understand:

  • The dynamics of how passers-by reacted to the ‘surprise’ performance
  • How to quantify audience sizes at these types of events
  • How to gauge what audience members thought of the performance and the value of the intervention to them
  • Whether this approach widens engagement from the traditional performing arts audience profile
  • What we can learn from the overall process of developing a piece in this way.

Programme of work
The Audience Agency worked with dance company Bottlefed to develop a pop-up performance piece with evaluation at the core. The resulting contemporary dance piece, ‘Meet me Far from Gravity’ was performed at 13 outdoor locations across London, ranging from a bus stop in the City to a supermarket entrance in Surrey Quays. A key feature of the piece was that it was performed silently to the audience. The dancers listened to the music on iPod’s (which later became the prizes in the competition).

There were five elements to the research methodology:

  • Audience size and dynamics – Filming and categorisation
    This provided information on the audience size for the performances and their observed levels of engagement and interaction with the piece.
  • Profiling and experience – Using luggage tags to gather feedback
    The profile of the audience members was gathered, along with their personal feedback on the performance using a tool that was integrated into the ‘travel’ theme of the piece.
  • Audience interviews – Vox Pops and audio recordings
    These in-depth interviews provided further information and have been presented in a way that allows stakeholders to ‘meet the audience’.
  • Online interaction – Bespoke website
    Through the public facing website, we were able to assess whether the audience continued the experience online.
  • The overall success of the approach – Feedback from key contributors
    This allowed us to understand how successful the process had been and what could help inform future work in this area.

What we found

  • The ‘Meet me far from gravity’ project succeeded in engaging new audiences with contemporary dance in a way that was innovative and rooted in each location in which the piece was performed.
  • This level of interest extended past the ‘moment’ of physical interaction, with a large proportion pursuing the experience online to find out more.
  • The diverse audience did not follow the profile of contemporary dance attenders but were still on the whole very positive about what they saw and were able to confidently articulate this.
  • In terms of group dynamics, the study showed how engagement at the different locations was affected by footfall, the type of location and timing of the performance. It also showed the process that passers-by go through to assess and decide on engaging.
  • Through this project, a new engagement categorisation was developed that can be applied to count and accidental audiences. The methodology for gathering feedback also worked well, with a high proportion sharing their experiences of the performances.
  • The overall success of the approach was down to the close working partnership between the dance company and the research company throughout the development of the piece. During the performances the dancers and the evaluators worked as a team, supporting each other throughout.

Impacts

  • Dissemination of the report findings was shared across key partners and development agencies such as Arts Development UK, the Association of Town Centre Managers, the GLA and ACE.
  • The research was used to inform the evaluation programmes planned for 2012 including the Big Dance activity.
  • The report informed aspects of The Audience Agency toolkit for researching audiences at outdoor events and festivals. This toolkit underpins data collection in the outdoor arts cluster of the national Audience Finder programme.