Theatre Network NSW: Building audience diversity

Kristine Landon-Smith and Fiona Winning get the conversation started at Bankstown Arts Centre, 2015. Photo courtesy of TNN.

Kristine Landon-Smith and Fiona Winning get the conversation started at Bankstown Arts Centre, 2015. Photo courtesy of TNN.

Theatre Network NSW (TNN) is a registered charity and not-for-profit that works to lead, strengthen and support the professional theatre industry. TNN aims to build capacity in the small-to-medium and independent sectors, and connect and work with the major companies.

TNN is supported by Arts NSW.

Here, TNN director Jane Kreis writes on behalf of the network about its biggest event for the year, Building Audience Diversity 2015, held 14 May at Bankstown Arts Centre.


Last month, Theatre Network NSW gathered together key theatre sector artists and workers to ask: “How does NSW do audience diversity?”

We wanted to explore how we could better see the richness of our communities reflected in our audiences, and in the work and processes of NSW theatre.

Most discussions about diversity in theatre focus on the work itself or the structure of theatre organisations. Rarely do the conversations centre on audiences.

Achieving audience diversity is critical to the sustainability of theatre as an art form, because audience diversity is about audience growth. If we keep attracting the same 50 or 100 people, our lifespan is limited to their own. As we diversify our audiences, we also increase our capacity to attract more partners and sponsors, which is vital to our robustness and growth.

Defining what we mean by ‘diversity’ is an interesting exercise in itself because it means very different things to our different stakeholders. TNN’s definition of diversity for this event focused particularly on cultural diversity but also included age, location and ability.

Theatre-makers will know from experience that achieving audience diversity is not as simple as creating more productions with more diverse appeal. If this were the case, our audience theatre demographics would reflect both the culturally rich landscape of NSW and the myriad of culturally diverse theatre productions across the state.

Achieving audience diversity requires dedication over a long period of time.

Although our discussion at the event was layered, TNN was mindful of not revisiting previous discussions on diversity, and to focus on positive and practical solutions in a truly participatory and interactive way. That audience diversity was important was a given; how we could better achieve it was the focus.

For those that could not make it to the event, we offered online access via a live-stream.


Who attended

We had more than 50 participants from a variety of theatre and cultural backgrounds.

The afternoon was facilitated by Kristine Landon-Smith, who is the Artistic Director for the UK-based ‘Tamasha’ theatre and a NIDA Lecturer, and Sydney Festival 2015 Program Manager Fiona Winning.

To stimulate discussion and represent varying few points, we had our ‘provocateurs’:

• Sonny Dallas Law
• Rosie Dennis (Urban Theatre Projects)
• Michelle Kotevski (Riverside Theatres)
• Annette Shun Wah (Performance4a)
• Karen Therese (Powerhouse Youth Theatre)


Hot topics and surprise findings

I was personally so moved by the generosity and positivity in the room, from our facilitators who donated their time, to how open our participants were with sharing their knowledge and ideas.

There was also a sense of celebration and inspiration about our achievements both individually and as a sector. Sometimes, as busy theatre makers, we forget the power we have to lift each other up.

In fact, the generosity in the room was a big topic during the networking segment of the afternoon. Participants also appreciated being able to start the diversity exploration from what is often considered the ‘end point’ – the audience. Starting with Kristine Landon-Smith’s examples of a culturally diverse audience, Fiona Winning and our guest provocateurs unraveled diversity from audience development through to engagement, to creation, to training, to dedication, to experience, to management, to strategy, and back again to audience.

These topics were considered a major change-up in the sector’s conversation on diversity to date. I recall one participants saying: “I haven’t had this conversation in twenty years of working in the sector”.

Participants were invited to brainstorm with sticky notes.

Participants were invited to brainstorm with sticky notes. Photo courtesy of TNN.

Simple changes organisations – and individuals – can make to increase audience diversity

When it came time to workshop solutions, the energy in the room was palpable.

Thanks to both Kristine Landon-Smith’s inspiring and insightful presentation on building audience diversity and Fiona Winning’s expert facilitation, we collaboratively arrived at answers to a number of focused questions.

Although some ideas were more strategic and long term, there were a number of simple things theatre-makers could do today to improve audiences. These are:

• Actively meet more artists and see more work outside of your usual networks
• Give artists a central role in audience development
• Encourage diversity on boards
• Tell more people about the work you are doing
• Encourage or inspire whole-of-sector commitment to programming diversity
• Shift perception from diversity being something someone else will think about, to asking “what I can do? What difference can I make?”

Theatre-makers don’t need to implement all these ideas at once, but rather seek opportunities within the resources and time available.

It also emerged from the afternoon that it’s important for theatre makers to remember to ask each other for help and support.

Theatre Network NSW is currently developing strategies and programs that we hope will facilitate these ideas and we encourage our stakeholders to ‘Get Associated’ through our website.


Why this event was so important to TNN

TNN was created by the sector in response to a sector need, so we are committed to our program of work being based on evidence and on the input of our constituency. Our major event on diversity responded directly to stakeholder requests. But this was also our first major event since becoming incorporated late last year and so it was very important to all at TNN that we do this event well, that it connects with our peers and associates.

Better connecting and networking are absolute necessities if our sector is to thrive. NSW has a diverse and active theatre scene, but these very qualities can militate against deep sharing of experiences and knowledge. We are all busy in our own worlds, and it’s hard to find the time and space to come together with those beyond one’s immediate circle of colleagues. TNN is committed to helping the sector to help itself. We already have the skills and experience among us – TNN brought those skills and experience to the same room for cleverly facilitated knowledge sharing.

TNN will use the forum notes to develop advocacy and resources in 2015, 2016 and into the future.



TNN would like to thank both Kristine Landon-Smith and Fiona Winning for donating their speaker’s fee to the TNN event and their positive response. Thanks too to our provocateurs who spoke from the depths of their hearts and on their own time. TNN was humbled to have such fabulous talent and attendees in the room. Bankstown Arts Centre was a standout venue. Urban Theatre Projects was the host for the event and went to extraordinary lengths to support TNN (including rolling out the table tennis table at drinks). TNN would also like to thank David K productions, RNR Productions, and Blatant Lab productions for their assistance.


About the author: Jane Kreis is the Director of Theatre Network NSW. Jane holds a PhD in sustainable Australian Independent Theatre practices from the University of Wollongong and a Masters in Principles of Performance Presence from Queensland University of Technology. Previous roles include Regional Arts Development Officer for Arts North West and Executive Officer for the Queensland Academy of Arts and Sciences. Jane lives in Grafton NSW and works from a variety of locations in NSW.



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Published: 1 June 2015