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YACIM, Roseline Ande: Audience Perception and Assessment of Performances at the University of Abuja, Open Air Theatre

Audience Perception and Assessment of Performances at the University of Abuja, Open Air Theatre

Roseline Ande YACIM

Department of Theatre Arts

University of Abuja, Nigeria

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Abstract

This seminar paper examines audience perception and assessment of live performances at the Open Air Theatre, University of Abuja. The Open Air Theatre (OAT) audience is being viewed as a new arts consumer whose responses are indicative of Radbourne et al’s arts audience experience index-knowledge, risk, authenticity, and collective engagement. Three live performances at the Open Air Theatre (OAT), University of Abuja, are employed to validate the audience perception and experience as a new quality assessment instrument using the focus group methodology. Four focus groups were interviewed which forms the analysis of findings in this work. The study recommends that audience perception and experience survey be conducted frequently by art organizations as this could be a way of retaining the old audience and developing new ones. It also submits that knowledge of audience intrinsic values is a panacea to the revival of live theatre.

Introduction

The increase in research interest in audience behaviour can be perceived to be due to the commercialization of the arts and the new marketing. Customer satisfaction is therefore critical to the management of an arts organization; hence the shift in research in audience survey to the qualitative and transformative experiences by the audience away from the old norm of quantity in evidence of popularity. “Audiences increasingly want to shape their own experience, and marketing strategies should be refocused on empowering audiences, not targeting them” (Bernstein 252). The once passive audience is now an active participant and co-creator in theatre performances since the new arts consumer ‘is on a quest for self-actualization where the creative or cultural experience is expected to fill a spiritual need that has little to do with the traditional marketing plan of an arts organization’. It is expected that ‘Audiences will be fiercely loyal if they can experience fulfilment and realization in the arts experience (Radbourne et al, Hidden Stories… para 3). Walmsley reiterated that:

Theatre going is a complex pursuit that transcends the blurred boundaries of arts, entertainment and leisure. It is therefore unsurprising that audiences’ motivations for going to the theatre to see a play vary enormously, from spiritual engagement at one extreme to a good night out at the other (qtd in Walmsley para 1).

This determines their assessment and perception of the performances.

In order to examine how an audience can expand the meaning of a performance, and contribute to this new knowledge of audience experience, perception and assessment of quality, this study will focus on audience participation in three drama productions at the Open Air Theatre (OAT), University of Abuja in the 2012/2013 session. In the course of this study, there had been no known work where these four indicators have been employed to survey audience perception and assessment of productions of James Henshaw’s The Jewels of the Shrine, Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame and Daniel Omatsola’s Paradox of Power. This study is therefore intended to bridge the gap between the audience and the management of the Open Air Theatre, University of Abuja through the discovery of the intrinsic values of the audience.

The Theatre Audience

The theatre audience is a group of people drawn to a theatrical event by the appetite for art at a certain time and place and that is aware of itself as a homogeneous group of art lovers (Nwamuo 23). Johnson describes the audience as those who made it to the theatre and interacted in the symbiotic relationship characteristic of the theatre… (174). Again, Barranger submits that, “the audience is the assembled group, for which all has been written, designed, rehearsed, and produced” (18). These descriptions or definitions focus on a set of people that are motivated to be at a particular place for a theatrical event. This goes to underscore their importance to the gathering even as this corroborates Wilson’s position that the audience forms an indispensable element in the theatre equation because theatre occurs only when spectators are present to interact with performers and identify with the characters being portrayed (9).

Lamos, as cited by Malomo, gives three different contexts in which we can define the audience: First as receptors, the audience is seen as a sounding board for the artistic impulse, implying that the audience consists of those who experience art. Secondly, as associates, he sees an audience as comprising all those with whom an individual or organization has some form of communication. This definition extends to all who support the arts or who have interest in their development. Thirdly, as customers, this definition sees audience as those whom the arts organization is trying to exchange something of value. The third definition is in tandem with our focus in this study. However, the other two are equally important but might be useful for further research in the field of audience development.

In narrowing down the focus of this study, the audience then can be said to be a group of persons that merge the artistic and the hedonic (emotions such as sharing of the applause, laughter and tears, thrills, expectations and delight) moment in the (live) theatre. This has earlier been described by Johnson as symbiotic, and generates the communal feeling that theatre symbolize. So also is the fact that, “audiences compare and contrast social and cultural experiences during and after the theatrical occasion and broaden their understanding of different cultures” (Barranger 22).

There are different personalities that comprise the audience; you can have the literate, the semi-literate, the illiterate, the professional, the artisan, the rude, the principled, the informed, the uninformed and so many others. However, the producer or director does not express any anxiety over the social class of persons before the curtain rises; rather he is anxious over the number in attendance as this gives immediate form of satisfaction when there is a full house. Without the audience in the theatre, the performance is incomplete. The audience then occupies a unique and indispensable position in the production scheme (Johnson 176). This is in tandem with Malomo’s submission that, “for artistic, social and economic reasons, the audience is therefore a vital element in a theatrical production, and hardly can any theatre organization survive if it cannot attract an audience” (89).

In small theatres, it is easy to determine the expectations of the audience through frequent interactions between staff and members of the audience. These interactions could be in form of conversations or telephone discussions either at the box office or before curtain rises. Some could even be pleasant or unpleasant yelling during or after the performance. Another is what is referred to as, “comment-release spot” (Langley 408). This spot is outside the lobby of the theatre or at a different environment and these comments are not voiced until they get to those spots. It is expected that a theatre manager identifies these spots with the purpose of getting feedback from the spots. This is in tandem with Langley’s submission that, “knowing the audience, individually or collectively, is a big first step in communicating with it. Audiences should be analyzed, formally and informally, and policy decisions should be directly related to the conclusions” (330). Hence, we agree with Malomo that,

audience research is a scientific means of evaluating the nature of audiences, in terms of their demographic attributes, consumer habits and other characteristics, which provides useful information for planning, decision making and target marketing, that are fundamental management functions (90).

The impact of audience research cannot be overemphasized in art administration, for some art administrators periodic research is carried out at the time when problems of attendance becomes noticeable (when there is downward trend or paucity of audience) (91). For some, it is to check the impact of the performing arts on the society like that conducted by Radbourne et al 2009.

One of the oldest researches in this area is that of Pedicord, as cited by Malomo, through which the Restoration theatre was assessed and appreciated (90). It is also recorded that spectators were talkative and liable to be more interested in each other than in the play (Hayman 305). The Elizabethan theatre was also recorded to have had audience that did not listen as we do in silence (Hayman 304). The Greek theatre is not left out as the nature of the worship of the god, Dionysus, portend that they must have also had an audience that got involved in the act of worship. These studies portray the audience of the period to be participatory audience as verbal exchanges between actors and spectators were said to be witty (Hayman 305).

However, further studies on audience research advanced Carlson’s notion of viewing the audience as a co-creator of the event. Bennett used the theories of spectatorship in analyzing theatre audiences. This study shifts the focus from the director’s view point to that of interrogating the audiences’ frame of reference (qtd in Radbourne et al, Hidden Stories… para 7). Tulloch coined the word, ‘audiencing’ to show how the cultural frames of education and marketing, for example inform responses to production…(qtd in Radbourne et al, Hidden Stories… para 7). Despite these researches undertaken, there are some key aspects of the responses of audiences to performances and the way these are generated by individual experiences that have not been completely explored. This study is to lend our own voice to the effort in this area of research with the Open Air Theatre, University of Abuja, since we know that, “audience research is crucial in a theatre-serving environment so as to diagnose their tastes, dislikes and what they out-rightly reject (Johnson 186). Again, Langley reiterated that, “survey results are an important marketing tool for the theatre manager if they are obtained and interpreted with expertise” (329).

           We have from previous surveys established that institutional theatre such as our focus of study, not-for-profit, commercial theatre organizations audiences’ expectations are essentially the same as identified by Barranger that:

  1. Audiences expect plays to be related to life experiences: They will prefer stories that can fascinate and at the same time entertain. They may not necessarily wish to be any of the actors but would want ‘authentic’ representations of some aspects of their own life. The theatre is also seen as a ‘silent’ school where you can also learn how to handle some life issues one confronts in the day to day interaction.
  1. Audiences go to the theatre expecting the familiar: This is expecting what they have seen before in terms of the plot, characters and situations. For instance, an audience used to contemporary Nigerian plays may come to the theatre expecting that same kind of play and if you present to them a different performance, it may not be well received. This can affect the subsequent nights of performance or general change of attitude towards subsequent publicity by the theatre company.
  1. Audience experience on collective response: An audience by definition is sharing with others – of laughter and tears, expectations and delight (22). This feeling of togetherness by psychologists satisfies a human need. For instance, the response to a great performance is sometimes instantaneous with exchange of satisfactory glances amongst members of the audience which build relationships.
  1. Audience is central to theatrical event: They are seen as co-creators of the theatrical event. They come in to the performance as active participants who are well informed on social, cultural and political issues and above all are also theatre inclined so could appraise issues placed before them during and after the theatrical event.

Again, we agree with Langley that,

It is the audience for which theatre is organized in the first place; not for the playwright, the director or the actor alone; not merely to “show off,” to gain prestige or to make money. All the ingredients that go into a theatrical production are easy to acquire in comparison to the acquisition of the desired audience response (Langley 408).

Hence, the urge to communicate with the audience must be integral to the creation of any work of art from a painting to an Ontario; but drama is the art in which the audience impinges most directly on the performance (Hayman 297), which explains our position of the choice of drama production at the Open Air Theatre (OAT) University of Abuja.

Audience Perception and Assessment

Perception and assessment are viewed here as the understanding of the audience based on what is being watched in the theatre. We agree with Radbourne et al in their submission that marketing in the arts is now driven by a focus on the qualitative experiences of audiences, including an audience quest for appropriation, connectivity and transformation through the arts experience (Hidden Stories… para 2). This position justifies the shift in focus from “the authenticity of objects to the authenticity of subjects.” That is, the paradigm shift from “the quantitative research to the narrative experiences” (Radbourne et al, Hidden Stories… para 7). The study therefore examines these variables in the three performances at the University of Abuja, Open Air Theatre.

Theoretical Framework

The significant call for the creation of arts management as a new discipline was around the year 2000 (qtd in Chiaravalloti & Piber 240). Series of questions were generated and several methods and approaches emerged. At the end of the decade of the 21st Century, issues of methodology were observed within arts management research (qtd in Chiaravalloti & Piber 241). The newness of this field opened up scholarly debates, rich reflections and developments which came with challenges of issues of acceptance, language, methodology and relevance of findings. All these hampered this field from “conducting a constructive academic debate aimed at enhancing knowledge of the sector and at improving management and organizational practices in the arts world” (Chiaravalloti & Piber 241). Wicks and Freeman’s call for the application of more diverse and multifaceted research methods and techniques, integrating qualitative, quantitative, and humanistic research approaches through what they call, “theoretical integration” seems a promising point of departure for the interdisciplinary arena of arts management for the purpose of establishing its own research tradition (qtd in Chiaravalloti & Piber 241).

As a point of fact, several approaches which explicitly made contribution to arts management research with theoretical integration include evaluation of the artistic outcome as an indicator of organizational performance without considering who is evaluating. Another is the approach focusing on the audience as an evaluator popularly referred to as customer satisfaction or measurement of visitor’s experience. The audience experience has previously been measured in qualitative and quantitative ways. The best method for any research will be determined by what the researcher intends to measure. However, it appears that the qualitative studies will give us more answers to what motivates the audience and how they appreciate the performance afterwards. For quantitative studies, a lot of data is generated within a short period and this data gives us restricted answers as the respondents are given limited space to relate their experience since categories/questions are prepared before being administered.

Gilhespy, Soren, Krug and Weinberg, Boerner, Boerner et al, Boerner and Renz, Weinstein and Bukovinsky, Radbourne et al, Radbourne, Glow, and Johnson and several other scholars have propounded the use of these approaches in their various studies. This study aligns with Radbourne et al four indicators of the Arts Audience Experience Index where focus groups were used to reflect on the nature of the audience’s experience and investigate the elements that enhanced or detracted from that experience, hence this is a qualitative study.

Radbourne et al’s Indicators for Measuring Audience Perception and Assessment

Radbourne et al’s four arts audience experience index indicators are established out of the analysis of research and reports by other scholars like McCarthy et al, Brown and Novak and several others. This is used as our conceptual framework in this study:

Knowledge: This is the flow of information on the performance to the audience. Several methods are adopted especially with recent communication technologies in place. The use of the theatre company’s web site and fliers gives the audience information on what to expect. The rationale behind this is that “the deeper the understanding of the performance the greater the appreciation, leading to a richer experience and increasing the likelihood of return visitation (qtd in Radbourne et al, “The Audience Experience…” 20). This reduces the risk level of their being uncomfortable at performances.

Risk: This is either positive or negative. Colbert, as cited by Radbourne et al (“The Audience Experience…” 20), described four kinds of risk that can make the audience visit or re-visit the theatre. They are functional, economic, psychological and social risks. Functional risk posits that-the product may or may not meet the expectation of the consumer. The consumer has a choice to make on what is functional per time. Economic risk considers the cost as a determinant factor to deciding the acceptability of the product. In this case the consumer (audience is faced with the risk of deciding to watch a performance at the cost of the entrance and transportation fee to and fro the venue). Psychological risk may pose a threat to the consumer’s desired self-image; will the audience wish to be seen watching such a performance? Lastly, is the social risk (this deals with how the consumer wishes to be perceived). This could refer to the location of the theatre, will the audience wish to be associated with a theatre in that part of the city/town/hall. In all these, knowledge of the performance is crucial to decision by would-be member of the audience. A good knowledge of the performance enhances understanding of the performance and minimizes the negative risk while maximizing the positive.

Authenticity: This can be defined as a form of truth in the performing arts. When the audience perceives that the performance is authentic, the greater the experience felt by the audience. There are two main components of authenticity. First is the one being offered in terms of the technical aspect of the performance and the second is the emotional perception from the audience’s view point. The reality, believability of a thing mean different things to different people, to some, it may mean an exact presentation of a script while to others, it could be a convincing performance even if the director uses his ‘directorial license’ in interpreting the script. Authenticity is a relative word to the audience, but it should be pursued by the theatre organization with the application of the arts audience experience index survey results.

Collective Engagement: This is the engagement of audience members with the performance in discussions before or after the performance. It can be intra personal or inter personal, verbal and non-verbal. The fact is that while the emotional and perceptual dimensions are experienced individually… people may smile at each other to indicate that they are having similar experiences, that cognitive analysis of a production is to a large extent a collective phenomenon, which may enhance the spectator’s insight in a performance through communication with other audience members (Radbourne et al, “The Audience Experience…” 21). Again, McCarthy et al, as cited by Radbourne et al, posits that when private feelings are jointly expressed and reinforced, the sense of togetherness gestures towards the importance of research into collective engagement. This is a vital aspect of socialization in a community, the ability to share your views and feelings with people of your immediate environment concerning issues of similar interest.

Focus Group Interview Discussions

Case Study 1: The Jewels of the Shrine written by James Ene Henshaw and performed by the 200 Level Students of the Department of Theatre Arts (2012/2013 Session), University of Abuja.

A focus group discussion was carried out the following day after the performance of the play The Jewels of the Shrine written by James Ene Henshaw. The focus group comprise of fifteen boys and ten girls between the ages of 18-27 years, sixteen from the Faculty of Arts and nine from the Faculty of Social Sciences. It was a one night performance that attracted about 210 persons.

Question 1: Do you have any previous knowledge of the play?

Respondent A: No, but about the playwright, yes. The playwright is known to have been the first Nigerian playwright of English expression. I only know about This is Our Chance. I didn’t know he had other plays to his credit.

Respondent B: For me, I have a good knowledge of the play because I have a friend in the class that performed. So, I read the script and I think the cast did well in their interpretation of the different characters.

Question 2: What is your role as a member of the audience?

Respondent C: Ah! To learn some lessons about life’s journey and how one can live a better life. You know we are in school, so we are learning about life outside the classroom.

Respondent D: All the performances I have watched are very educative. Each time I come to the theatre, I go back with something new. For instance, this particular performance exposes children who depend on parent’s inheritance instead of working hard to make a mark. Arob and Ojima were disappointed at the reading of the ‘last will and testament’ of their grandfather, when they discovered he left nothing for them. The lesson I learnt there is that I should never look at what my parents have; rather, I should work hard to have my own things.

These respondents communicate their positions on their understanding of the role of learning as a part of audience experience. This is to say that the engagement of the audience is that of learning: ‘I go back with something.’ This goes to infer that audiences seek to maximize ‘utility’ from aesthetic experiences (Kushner 120). Some negative comments came from some of the respondents as to not being in the know of the play or the playwright and not seeing anything new or worth discussing about the play. These two respondents discuss their experience this way:

Respondent E: I didn’t see anything in the play that is new. Someone was talking so much about the playwright while we were filing into the theatre. I have not read anything about him so I didn’t know much.

Respondent F: To seat down quietly for that long is boring. I didn’t see anything new about the play that made people excited.

We can deduce that because these respondents do not know much about the performance, not much was of benefit to them. We agree that, there is hidden knowledge within the experience of viewing live performing arts which can challenge those ‘not in the know’ (Radbourne et al, “Hidden Stories…” para 23). The respondents that learned from the experience had more excitement talking about it and it implies they had a sense of fulfilment being a part of the experience.

Case Study 2: The Gods Are Not To Blame written by Ola Rotimi, produced by the 400 and 100 level students of the Department of Theatre Arts (2012/2013 Session), University of Abuja.

The focus group was interviewed two days after the performance. The performance ran for two nights and most of the focus group members attended the two nights. This made some respondents remind one another where they felt the other was derailing from the sequence in their responses. The focus group comprised ten girls and twelve boys. Eight of them from the Faculty of Social Sciences, eleven from the Faculty of Arts and three from the Faculty of Sciences. Their ages ranged between 20-28 years. The audience attendance on the first night was about 280 people while the second night was about 200 people.

Question 1: What do you like about live theatre?

Respondent A: Live theatre to me is real because it makes me feel better what the playwright is saying. It is as if I live with the characters in the same world. I am always carried away and I do not like distractions until after the play. For
this particular play, The Gods are not to Blame, I read it a long time ago. So, when it was advertised, I made up my mind to go for the performance. It is not the same thing as watching a film because in stage performances, you can relate with the characters. They even ask those of us who make up the audience questions as if we are acting together. It is so fulfilling and you leave the theatre judging the characters on why they did what they did.

Respondent B: I felt very bad with the part that Gbonka was asked to kill the baby. Ehen, then when Odewale was worried about looking for the cause of the calamity that had befallen his people. Oh! I felt bad. Well, to your question, you cannot compare live performance to any other. Live performance is real and I do not miss performances. I prefer dramas to all those other shows you have at the OAT.

Respondent C: There were so many commentaries on the character of Odewale where I sat. I wish Odewale was close to me, I would have told him to forgive himself since he did not know who he was when he committed the crime. Again, I blame the gods for not killing Odewale in another way if they knew he would still kill his father and marry his mother.

Respondent D: I prefer comedies and music live shows. The dramas take my emotions and sometimes I go home very sad thinking all through the night about the performance.

These respondents discussed their experiences with so much passion. Respondent D would not wish to be disturbed emotionally about the actions or inaction of a character; he prefers interacting with musicians and stand-up comedians. Respondent C would have preferred eye-to-eye contact with the performers so that he can communicate with them and advise them on what to do. This focus group experienced the audience-to-audience interaction in the theatre. They narrated that there were so much side comments each time lights were turned off. One respondent claimed he spoke to someone he did not know during the performance and they became friends after the performance. To him, the performance was interactive and he was looking forward to such ‘heavy,’ well known playwrights in future. These respondents expressed the pleasure of collective engagement though they would have preferred interacting more with the actors after the performance. This is in line with Jacob’s submission, as cited by Radbourne et al, that, “the co-presence of others in the concert hall and the ability to discuss the performance are significant factors in heightening the audience presence” (“Hidden Stories…” para 31). This sense of togetherness is an act of socialization in any human setting.

Case Study 3: Paradox of Power written by Daniel Omatsola performed by the 300 level Students of the Department of Theatre Arts (2012/2013 Session), University of Abuja.

The performance was for two consecutive nights but was marred by rainfall on both nights. The interview was conducted after the second night of performance. Eight of the members of this group were girls, twenty of them were boys; six of them were from the Faculty of Arts, eight were from the Faculty of Social Sciences, ten from Sciences, and four from Diploma in Mass Communication. The age range was between 20-30 years. The first night attracted about 150 people while the second night was about 100 people.

Respondents were asked if they sought prior knowledge of such a production and the venue with the rainy season. Three of the respondents agreed that they did not ask but took the risk as anxious members of the audience. A respondent said he felt the play director would start the performance on time so as to end on time since the weather prediction was rainy most nights.

Respondent A: I like the theatre all the way. The rain is also part of life. The risk is worth it because life itself is risky.

Respondent B: When I saw the invitation card of a lecturer friend that was invited, I became anxious because I never saw that before; so, I made up my mind to be part of it.

Respondent C: I felt the director will start on time; though he started on time but luck was not on our side for the two nights. The rains came on both nights. For the parts I watched, I think the risk was worth taking.

In discussing risk with this set of respondents, they agreed that the risk was worth taking in life. To them, performances are not very frequent so they have to be there whenever they know there is one.

Respondent D: I think that Open Air Theatre management insist that the play must go on either the weather is favourable or not. For me, in seasons like this, they can make use of indoor lecture theatres like the New Law Theatre.

Comments as this indicate that this audience self-identify with the Open Air Theatre’s selection of productions. They are ready to take some emotional risks, which some claim constitute part of life and to some they have no alternative to Open Air Theatre performances. These respondents personalized their responses in their quest for authenticity through the need for the real self to their ideal self (qtd in Radbourne et al, Hidden Stories… para 39). They laid bare their value and intrinsic benefit through a narrative to self-identify with the experience based on the contemporary issues in the society being x-rayed on stage. The corrupt nature of politics in Nigeria, and how those that desire public office buy their way into these offices through the buying off of electorates. For some of the respondents, it was that the performance had an authenticity as they relate the play’s themes to present day issues in Nigeria. The authenticity to this group had to do with their association and intimacy with the Open Air Theatre which enhanced the engagement of some audience members. There were criticisms on the set construction. For them they expected better setting being an institutional theatre meant to train students. Some respondents sent words to the management of Open Air Theatre.

Respondent E: What the management should do is to consider our feelings because we are human beings. They should either provide alternative venues during the rains or do not advertise any performance in the season. You know we pay for gate fee.

Respondent F: Well, I know things are not easy but the management can do better than what we are seeing at the Open Air Theatre. Why can’t they do some of the performances at the Education Trust Fund Hall at the Permanent Site so that those of us at the Permanent Site can also enjoy without having to ‘huzzle’ (hustle) for transportation in the night?

Respondent G: There is no security in that place. We are just risking our lives. I will stop going there if management does not get the school security men to parade the place during performances. You know the situation in the country now especially in schools. This Boko Haram people who are saying ‘NO’ to Western education are all over the place now.

Respondent H: This kind of performance should be taken to Transcorp Hilton for the politicians. They need to see themselves as portrayed by the playwright.

These respondents laid bare their minds through these comments and the expression of anger and bitterness is evident on their faces. They were more concerned about the venue and lamented what they had to go through to watch any performance at the Open Air Theatre. The threat to stop attending performances at the Open Air Theatre by one of respondent is out of fear due to the prevailing security reports on the insurgency in the country.

From the responses in all the focus group discussions, it is clear that every performance makes the audience a repository of experiences and stories that they do not share with the management of the theatre, though some share with the performers who are co-students. Our experience in this study is that Open Air Theatre audience has hidden feelings they wish to share but have no platform based on their assessment and perception of the performances at the Open Air Theatre.

We agree that marketing the performance has shifted to audience experience, which has fallen into four indices. ‘Every story provided a narrative about the authenticity of the performance, the capacity of the audience member to take risk (artistic, social or financial), the place of learning in the experience, and the relationship to other audience members’ (Radbourne et al, “Hidden Stories…” para 41).

Potential Audience

A further interview was conducted among residents of Gwagwalada with the view to discovering why some do not attend performances at the Open Air Theatre. Fifteen were female and twenty, male. These are residents who live around Kutunku, Specialist Hospital and Doma Gas Station, and SDP and Lokoja-Abuja Highway areas. We also got some people from the Gwagwalada market. Below are some of their submissions:  

              

Question: Do you visit the Open Air Theatre for performances?

Respondent A: No, I do not. This is because I believe the students are very noisy and I                                       do not like noisy places; so, I avoid them. I will prefer to buy the recorded version; but each time I ask, it is not available.

Respondent B: I believe it is a student affair and I am not a student. You know, after work, one is tired and I do not leave my house till the next day.

Respondent C: I do once in a while when I discover that the play advertised is that of a popular writer.

Respondent D: As a married woman, I do not have the time because of the children and my husband. I only watch Nollywood and I believe all of them are theatre people.

Respondent E: I do not know they perform for the public. I thought it is just a departmental affair. The management should create more awareness by advertising on radio through jingles.

Respondent F: No. I am a busy person. I beg, no time at all. I work in the city                                       and I cannot afford to play around when I get back home.

Respondent G: Ah! Me no know wetin una dey talk sef. Na how I go sell my market, train my children, feed my wife na im dey worry me. By the time wey I reach house, I don tire. May be if na on Sunday after Church, but I dey even use my Sunday rest sef.                           

The responses of those who do not attend indicate lack of awareness about the performances, lack of interest, preference to an alternative to live performances, demand for weekend performances and demand for more publicity in the activities at the Open Air Theatre. The last set of respondents we tag potential audience due to their candid feelings towards the Open Air Theatre performances. This researcher hopes to explore areas which responses can be made to the various requests/desires of this set of respondents in a future study, as audience survey enables theatre managers explore potential audience to becoming ‘the theatre audience.’

Result of Findings

The four indicators of audience experience applied to the study provide the following findings. A total number of seven focus groups were interviewed but we submit findings on five. This is due to the relevance of the discussions to our focus in the study. A total number of 180 (one hundred and eighty) persons were interviewed in all as this captures the average number for all the performances recorded in this study. However, two other performances were discussed which will be employed in a further study based on thematic reasons.

The functional, economical, psychological and social aspect of risk of attending performances is well understood by the audience and they felt it is worth taking since the performances are few at the Open Air Theatre. They acknowledged that there are no ready alternatives to these performances within Gwagwalada. This indicates that the cost is appropriate and the venue convenient in terms of proximity to their location. The expectation of the audience in this case is met with the themes of the plays which they identified as being mostly on contemporary issues that deal with the daily happenings in the society.

The respondents of this focus group agree that the performances are educative, entertaining and informative. Some stressed that they go to the theatre to learn, away from the classroom environment. Audiences who place a low level on knowledge, new learning and meaningful understanding, are most likely to prefer another type of activity over performances at the theatre.

           In discussing authenticity of the performances, half of the focus group members agreed that more often the actors are convincing in the characters they portray. The other half were quick to point out that some characters sometimes forgot their lines and so get out of character. A general assessment is that the actors are doing well but can improve on ‘living’ the roles they are made to play.

There are several suggestions as to why the Open Air Theatre (OAT) should offer them more performances. Some said that they preferred to go to the theatre with their friends instead of drinking bars (alcohol selling spots). They suggested there should be at least one performance every fortnight as a way of Open Air Theatre’s contribution to the social live in Gwagwalada. They all agreed that they make friends during and after the performances and so there is collective engagement of members of the audience arising from the performances.

An alternative venue during the rainy season was quickly suggested by those who could not watch the performance of Paradox of Power to the end, on both nights. There was some element of frustration and anger expressed by the focus group. One suggested the New Law Theatre (Mini Campus) during the rainy season and another suggested the Education Trust Fund building at the Permanent Site of the Campus located en-route Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport route.

Students from the Permanent Site of the campus made a passionate appeal to the management of the Open Air Theatre that performances should also be at the Education Trust Fund (Permanent Site) or provision of free University Shuttle Buses for performance nights. Another was even quick to add that the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) Hall was best in the face of the security issues around the society.

In focus group discussions, one expects very candid opinions as we assured them of anonymity in all discussions. Some clamoured for musical shows aside from drama. One categorically encouraged the Open Mic Show after each performance. Others solicited for interaction between audience, director and casts in form of questions concerning each performance. Members of the focus group believed they needed to know more about the performances and this could be done through interaction with the director, casts and possibly the technical crew. This is also a way of collectively engaging the theatre family. They were also quick to add that knowledge passed on these performances enhances better understanding of the playwrights or the director’s directorial skill.

A lot of observations were made on call time. Some agreed 7.00pm is appropriate while others feel it should be 6.30pm so as to end the performance on time. The issue of security was extensively discussed. Some observed that the location of the theatre demand intensive patrol by Security Guards during performances as to ensure vigilance.

One commended the effort of the director of Paradox of Power on the literature provided in the handbill. He said it made the performance different from others despite the ‘poor’ office setting. He also noted that the dialogues were long but that the play was a typical Nigerian political class story. He sent words of advice to the director to take it to a place like the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, so politicians will have the benefit of watching the performance as he believed it might make some of them reflect on their activities during elections.

On the issue of publicity, some respondents agreed that the publicity done by students was the only source of information available to them. However, suggestions were made for radio jingles, WhatsApp chat, facebook, posters, etc. be used in future so as to create more awareness for Gwagwalada populace.

Some respondents do not have interest in the activities of the theatre as they prefer to buy recorded versions of the performances which are not always available. Some are too busy with the home front, especially women; and the fact that Gwagwalada is a satellite town that hosts workers in the city featured in the discussions. Hence, some residents claimed the schedule was tight and so preferred to think of such distractions during the weekends and not within the week so as to concentrate on their work schedules.

Further to our findings, we discovered that the evolving climate in the arts world demands arts organizations to make smart and cost-effective decisions about strategies to attract and retain audiences, sustaining practices that work and modifying or dropping those that do not (Sherwood 5). This demands that organizations should also change themselves in ways that encourage risk-taking, innovation and learning (Sherwood 15).

Conclusion

As an institutional theatre, several experiments have taken place in instructing students, this study also places this type of theatre as one that can be commercialized along-side its present status. The ‘hidden stories’ of the audience is most times narrative and it forms their values and expectations. It can enhance retaining the old and developing new audience based on the four indicators applied in this study. We believe these stories will offer management candid information about the intrinsic benefits and cultural impact of the performances at the Open Air Theatre (OAT). Audience research places the management of any theatre organization on a pedestal that enables such management meet the dynamic needs of the society in general and the audience in particular.

In the focus group interview, we ensure we had one student from the Department of Theatre Arts as a member of each of the focus group. Audience members of the Open Air Theatre, University of Abuja are basically students with very few members of staff of the University. The population of Gwagwalada comprises public/civil servants; the paramilitary and the artisans who mostly work in the city centre but reside in Gwagwalada. Again, the academics and their family who reside within Gwagwalada and Giri were not visible in our survey. Hence, one is led to conclude that they are not well informed about the operations of the Open Air Theatre of the University.

The study submits that though the Open Air Theatre (OAT) under study is an institutional theatre, it is important that management, artistic director and performers identify with these ‘hidden stories’ which are authentic statements from the audience. These ‘hidden stories’ are only possible through frequent audience assessment survey sponsored by the management of the Open Air Theatre (OAT) of the University. Again, it was discovered that quality performance and high technical skills in performance were recognized by the audience across all the performances, hence, a lot more need to be done to ensure quality output in performances. The study recommends more publicity strategies on the activities of the theatre. It could be through paid announcements in media outfits, mailing list should be developed so as to send bulk short messages to members of the audience. A calendar of events should be developed for each semester as this keeps members of the audience abreast of what to expect in the semester. The Open Air Theatre management can even appoint ‘Theatre Ambassadors’ in different departments who pass information on Open Air Theatre performances to their various departments.

We noted earlier that audience research places the management of any theatre organization on a pedestal to meet the dynamic needs of the audience which corroborates Ayakoroma’s submission that audience survey gives the true picture of the rating of any production or the attitude of the audience to the performance of a theatre company (112). His position corroborates Brocket’s crucial issues to consider when writing about the audience in the theatre. These include the reason for their attending the theatre, the way their financial support influences the repertory, the effect of the audiences’ demand on theatrical production and the impact their physical presence have on performances (19).

Efforts should be made by theatre organizations in increasing the number of visitors and users of the theatre, even if this does not immediately increase their revenues as we believe it will also enhance effort towards audience development and keeping’ live’ theatre alive.

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