Although people may see it as a poor, slightly bawdy, member of the performing arts family pantomime sees sell-out shows year-on-year at venues where what are perceived to be more high-brow performances struggle to get posteriors on seats.
Bawdy it may be, but it has quite a pedigree (traceable back to theatre in Ancient Greece) and it unarguably places the audience at the heart of things. As The Guardian’s Matt Trueman puts it, ‘a pantomime needs an audience like a puss needs boots’.
More recently many theatres, particularly those in large cities, have developed more adult themed Christmas shows that build on the audience participation of the pantomime, such as Office Party & La Soiree.
The Financial Times podcast discussion on the changing role of the audience looks at audience engagement in contemporary theatre practice. It discusses the value of this engagement, and interestingly argues that interaction reminds people that the shows are live, one time only experiences.
As the FT discussion highlights, audience engagement gives value for money and a unique experience that cannot be had sat in front of the TV or their computer. It also gives them ownership and breaks down barriers that many people see in traditional theatre – that it is too highbrow, that not only can they not engage with the acting, but also that they can’t be part of the audience. Thirdly the initial pitch is important – even before the audience arrives, the performance has been sold as something welcoming, warm, accessible, perhaps aimed at children but increasingly broader. Getting really good engagement gets repeat visits, and because it is unique it has an inherent ‘treat’ quality.
The question for venues then is how to build upon the success of the pantomime for different art forms and genres of performance? What should they do to retain their festive audiences and make sure they come back again before next Christmas comes round?