Banff Playwrights Lab 2018: Performing to a Changing Audience

Playwrights Lab 2018

Marjorie Chan's Dim Sum Lose Some

The Banff Playwrights Lab celebrated its 45th edition in 2018. The Lab supported 50 artists from Canada, Australia, Denmark, the U.K. and the United States, working on more than 25 different projects. This year, the focus area was on audience, and we explored many aspects of that question:

Performing to audiences that are changing—over time, from performance to performance during a run, and from city to city for those who tour Canada. Audiences are shifting, particularly in larger cities where they are becoming more culturally diverse, at least in some venues. What does it mean to playwrights to hear their stories when the audience changes from night to night or city to city? Who is this play for—which audience? Can it play equally well in every city, or every night?

We also examined ways that playwrights are incorporating audiences as participants into their new creations, something increasingly common.

How are audiences defining the experiences they attend? They are demanding active experience rather than passive spectatorship, especially, but not only, among younger audiences. The Lab put out a call for theatre works in which audience involvement/participation is central to the event. We received many applications, of all kinds. It is illuminating to me that playwrights are absorbing the expanding interest in audience engagement and imagining how they and their works can have more impact on their audiences. The question becomes: where do these shows live?

One of my favourite moments of this year's Lab was when playwright Bea Pizano, Artistic Director of Aluna Theatre in Toronto, referred to the challenges she faces in considering all the complicated aspects of these audience-related issues: “The audience is the mother-fucker.” 

And as I thought of whether to use this quote or not, I too had to consider audience and how they—you—would receive that statement, one that we all knowingly laughed along with when it was shared.

Here are a few snapshots based on our conversations at the Lab:

  • Welcoming is crucial—what are the strategies to welcome an audience, to make the experience personal and individual and therefore unique? How do we help them feel like individuals rather than part of an anonymous group?
  • Food and drink—an essential component. How, and to what extent, is food and drink available or incorporated into the event, and how is it related to the content of the show?
  • Theatres tend to be static in relationship to audience—the relationship is largely the same every time, due to the nature of the venue. Theatres need to explore further how to make this static relationship more active and engaged, not with more e-blasts or ancillary activities, but actually in the room.
  • New relationships between artists and audiences offer the possibility of deeper connection, and therefore deeper exploration, together, of the content—Maiko Yamamoto of Vancouver’s Theatre Replacement, who developed a new piece at the Lab called Mine, terms it “shared engagement,” in which performance, community, site, and engagement are built into the experience; that sounds ideal. 
  • Maiko reminded us that presenters, especially at festivals, are very interested in engagement with audiences. And tend to be more capable of providing it due to the flexibility they wield in terms of schedule, venues, and audience.
  • Based on my own recent experiences, museums appear better able to incorporate deeply audience-engaged performance. These venues deal with audiences in much different ways than sit-down theatres, and therefore have ways of intersecting effectively and powerfully with audiences. Can museums and theatres learn from the very different experiences they each provide, and both present a more richly varied offering that draws from their mutual strengths? 
  • For a lot of performing arts organizations, engagement is put into ancillary events and activities rather than at the core of their artistic work. Much of that artistic work retains a passive audience-performance relationship, so the issue becomes how to engage with individuals more creatively during the arrival, the hosting, the departure rather than through things such as talk-backs that often seem like an offering of false intimacy and controlled engagement rather than free play and interaction.
  • Many of the Lab projects are designed with the audience playing a more central role in the experience. This creates a challenge: where do these works fit in terms of the theatres that have the highest capacity to bring them into contact with audiences, but are generally least able to accommodate—because of their organizational structure and venues—performance events which require very different presentation strategies. Thus, these works tend to find homes in festivals by independent creators where the audience experience can in fact be co-designed by the artists creating the work in collaboration with the organization presenting it to the audience. 


A few examples developed at the Lab this year: Marjorie Chan’s Dim Sum Lose Some takes place over a dim sum meal; Grieving Things, by U.K. company Fevered Sleep, created by Sam Butler and David Harradine, takes the form of a shop that people wander into to talk about grief and buy products designed for the show—love it. 

U.K. playwright Sharon Clark’s company, Raucous, uses, among many multidisciplinary elements, aroma as a central creative tool. Maiko’s show Mine is set in the video game Minecraft, with spectators watching it being played live in front of them by the creators along with children from the community. And Dr Silver: A Celebration of Life is a new immersive musical by Anika and Britta Johnson in which the audience becomes members of a cult, locked into the venue for a final funeral. 

The audience may be a mother-fucker, as Bea said. And if so, it is because the complexities of the invitation we make to audiences are so rich, often elusive, and ever-changing. That’s what Bea was grappling with, and what all Lab participants grappled with throughout the 2018 edition.

Brian Quirt is Director of the Banff Playwrights Lab; he is a dramaturg, a produced playwright, has directed across Canada, and is Artistic Director of the Toronto theatre company Nightswimming.

This article is based on Brian’s presentation to the Canadian Arts Summit at Banff Centre, April 21, 2018.