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Artistic director Natalie Ibu: Theatre must create an audience culture that welcomes everyone

Natalie Ibu (top right) and with audience members at the press night of Tiata Fahodzi’s Good Dog, which she directed, at Watford Palace earlier this year. Photo: Nour Abida Natalie Ibu (top right) and with audience members at the press night of Tiata Fahodzi’s Good Dog, which she directed, at Watford Palace earlier this year. Photo: Nour Abida
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If theatres believe in the value of diverse audiences and are passionate about programming work that looks like Britain today, they should encourage existing audiences to make space for new and different people, says Natalie Ibu

With the approach of my five-year anniversary running Tiata Fahodzi – a company that tells stories of the developing mixed experience African diaspora in contemporary multicultural Britain – and 15 years in theatre, inevitably it has made me reflect. How and why has this black, queer Scot-in- England, working-turned-middle-class woman made a home in an industry where the corridors can sometimes feel pretty dusty?

The answer: the audience. Always. I love theatre – so like everything I love, I want to share it with absolutely everyone. As a director, I broker a relationship between audiences and an artist’s imagination. And, as a producer, I want as many people as possible to join us and I want them to look like the people on the streets I walk. The audience that could – and should – exist.

At Tiata Fahodzi, we don’t have a home. Instead we make work nationally while exploring what it means to be local in more than one place. So there is no ‘our’ audience. In fact, as John McGrath argues in A Good Night Out: “They, in fact, had appropriated us: we belonged to them…”

We recently launched the friendship model – a new way of thinking about relationships with audiences. Dawn Walton, of Eclipse Theatre, said – on a panel launching the Creative Case for Diversity in 2014 – that audience development is as simple as inviting people to your party. And I thought: “Yes.” But then I thought, looking around at my own organisation and beyond: “Hang on, you don’t throw a party without having some friends first.” At Tiata Fahodzi, we believe that if we get to know our future audiences and engage them in friendship first, then – like all rewarding friendships – they’ll seek out opportunities to spend more time with us, there will be no hard sell.

We’ve put our money, time and resources where our mouth is and where our heart is and are focused on creating shared moments of connection and relationship with our national African heritage diasporic community. This is led by our full-time friendship producer Kiki Brown. For her, no day is the same. It could be bantering while being taught dominos by Caribbean uncles in a community hall, or joining in the exercise class run by the Watford African Caribbean Association, or learning about the latest concerns in the local black community at a community meeting at Patwarls Caribbean restaurant.

Some of these friends will come to our shows as a result, some won’t. But all will know who the company is and that we’re here for them and because of them. By building a relationship, nurturing a friendship full of integrity and authenticity, we want people to think about the theatre differently and as a place for them.

The thing that transforms a theatre from one I will sit in to one I won’t is not the programme, but the audience

When it comes to cultivating audiences, it seems to me our theatres are only part of the problem. There are a number of theatres I simply won’t go to because their buildings are hard to move through looking like I do and because their audiences are difficult to sit among. The thing that transforms a theatre from one I will sit in to one I won’t is not the programme – I’m well practised at imagining myself into narratives that culture locks me out of – but the audience. The existing audience can make or break the experience.

Let’s assume the theatre – its board, executive team and staff – believes in the value of more and different audiences, and is passionate about curating a programme that looks like Britain today. How is it creating an audience culture that welcomes and includes everyone? How is it taking its existing audience members on that journey and encouraging them to make space for new and different people?

My peers – from a range of races, classes, ages, religions, genders and sexualities – and I have inboxes full of horror stories about the ways we’ve been invisible or far too visible in theatres. Like the time a white middle-aged woman turned around to ask the young people of colour what school they were from and why they were there. Or the time an old man sat next to still-getting-IDed-at-35 me and asked whether my mobile phone was on or off despite the fact it was nowhere to be seen. Or the time I watched an autograph-seeker make a Nazi salute to the black theatre security guard and the theatre management staff suggested, when I reported it via email later, that I be the one to go to the police. Or the time I watched a matinee audience baffled by the new gender-neutral signage, so they took it upon themselves to police which toilet each person used based on their assumed gender identity.

One really successful black female artist who was catching her breath watching a challenging piece of work that was about us but not for us, was accosted in the toilets with an enthusiastic: “You must love this.” And let’s not forget that time Richard Jordan was policing all audiences’ snacks.

Amber Massie-Blomfield: This audience shaming has got to stop

Academic Kirsty Sedgman’s recent thread on Twitter sharing the Facebook debate about the very specific micro-agressions white audience members inflict on black audiences in theatres – even when the work is black and speaking specifically to black people about their experience of being black – is jaw-dropping and infuriating. We hear testimonies of people as young as five being policed, the behaviour and responses of the audience to the work being deemed inappropriate, or assumptions that audiences of colour are new to theatre.

The question is: Who does this policing really serve? The actor Martina Laird said on Twitter last week that the cast of King Hedley II “despaired last night at the loss of response from our audience – turns out they were being hushed”.

When Daphne Selfe tells us she’s ashamed by those who wear jeans to the opera – like me – we’re all outraged. But what are we consciously, thoughtfully and radically doing to be a place where all are welcomed. If audience development is inviting people to your party, then we – the hosts – need to think carefully about whether Great Aunt Anne is ready to meet Ade, whether Uncle Bob is ready to meet Bhavini, whether John is ready to meet Juan, and if they’re not, what are we going to do about it?

What we programme is only part of the story – a representative and inclusive programme says we see you, but it doesn’t say we’re here for you and we want you with us.

Natalie Ibu is artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi

Tiata Fahodzi’s Natalie Ibu: ‘We’re all living far more diverse lives than theatre acknowledges’

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