Ars gratia populi

larkrise01Last summer I wrote this and it set me on a slow plod to try to get theatres and arts organisations into the blogging and social media space. I pitched to a couple of theatres and sent material to lots more, but It’s never really got enough momentum behind it and there seemed to be a lot of resistance too – not least, worries about interference with the creative process and lack of cash, or more accurately other priorities for the relatively small amount of cash available.

Yesterday, the very lovely Katherine Wood at the Society of London Theatre pointed me in the direction of this report from London Calling. It’s the findings of a survey carried out among a range of arts organisations across the country in June 2006 (actually the same time that Debbie was melting the phones in the Pimlico branch, trying to get us in to speak to theatre comms people).

In addition to the no cash problem (more than two-thirds of respondents have a budget for web development of less than £10k) the survey identifies “no clear grasp of the benefits/opportunities” and the fear that “digital solutions only add to workloads” as lines of resistance to embracing these technologies.

I read the following general strategy into the answers given about the rate at which different technologies are being understood and adopted: “We’ve got to have a website, this is primarily for online ticketing, though we can do some other merchandising and marketing with it too. Then we game the search engines to make sure people come to us. Get their e-mail addresses and spam them” As usual I exaggerate for effect, but it all feels a bit 1997. Thank God most of them haven’t heard of Bluetooth…

The section Engaging with Audiences reveals more about what “engagement” seems to mean in this context. To focus on which technology to use gets it the wrong way round (it’s about people, people!) – but all of the technologies presented are best suited to a mindset of one-way communication – what I see as a narcissistic approach to engagement – see how beautiful and clever I am and you will want to be my friend and then buy my products – rather than saying “I, like you, am a human being, I love making and enjoying art and I see that you do too, let’s talk about how we can work together for mutual benefit – how I can help you and you can help me” That’s what I consider engagement.

There’s lots of work to be done here – it’s part of Web 2.2, of what Nancy has termed “the second wave” and Debbie keeps calling “the post-geek phase”. I’m interested in doing education and experimentation in this area, but most of all shifting the mindset from one-way to two-way – how do you do that? One mind at a time, baby, one mind at a time.

These lastminuteliving diaries for Cabaret and Wicked (there are others too) are a start and so is this rat blog from Soho Theatre but I can’t help feeling they could be so much more engaging (and more easy to find!) and I worry that without the mindset shift, they will be seen to not have worked and therefore be abandoned.

If you’re like those in the survey, 64% of whom said they face no internal resistance and 76% of whom said “No” to the question “Would you say that your website meets all the needs of your audiences at present?” or if you’re working on sites already and want to bounce ideas around about making them better, give me a ring and let’s have a chat about it.

[btw yeah, that’s me at the back of the picture on stage at the Swan Theatre, Worcester in the 1982 production of Lark Rise, directed by John Doyle, and including Adrian Phillips and Rufus Norris in the cast – I have no pictures of Rufus, but there’s one of Adrian on my flickr stream – heh!]

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