Understanding theatre fans

by Kirsty Sedgman

4 Aug 2017

The most-watched theatre production in the world, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, first came to the West End in 1989. By now it has grossed over $5.6 billion, ‘more than any film or television show’, become the longest-running show on Broadway, and played to over 140 million audience members in 166 cities in 35 countries around the globe.

Understanding theatre fans

Phantom’s success is at least partly thanks to its large and committed fanbase. Many of these ‘Phans’ have seen the show dozens (even hundreds) of times, often travelling around the world to ‘collect’ actor viewings and engaging in community activities like fanfic and cosplay. Phan-producer relations were running smoothly, in fact, right up until Lloyd Webber’s launch in March 2010 of the new sequel Love Never Dies. As Phans swarmed online to protest what the new show had done to their beloved canon – violating in the process the no-reviews-during-previews rule – box office numbers faltered. Before long Lloyd Webber himself had entered the fray to condemn his most loyal audiences as ‘insane’, denouncing their engagements as ‘a whole sad culture’, and complaining that the proliferation of online discussion forums has meant that ‘this small number of people have now got this marketplace where they can be the Benedict Nightingale [The Times’s veteran chief theatre critic] of the day’.

This episode reveals the anxiety that attaches itself to fans. While the collective cultural industries are working furiously to widen and deepen audience engagement, tensions still surround theatrical fandom as a distinct phenomenon. What the Phantom episode showed us is that while producers tend to praise fan activities for buying into official decisions and products. When this turns into a sense of ownership over the text itself, audiences risk public censure: castigated for speaking up, they are seen as unqualified to judge.

But this tug-of-war between producer / audience power is not even the whole story. My work on theatre audience reception has identified an overarching resistance to ‘populist’ performance more widely: a scholarly and critical unease about those spectacular commercial behemoths designed to be produced transnationally. By feeding into an experience economy that privileges easy enjoyment over deeper engagement, such events are often believed to produce inauthentic or dubious kinds of pleasure. In other words, people who call themselves fans within theatre contexts are often criticised precisely for being fans: either by investing in the wrong kind of performance, or by engaging with ‘legitimate’ theatre for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways. (For some examples of the latter, see the online furore following a series of star theatrical appearances, from Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, to Kit Harington’s Dr. Faustus.)

The queasiness surrounding fans is not distinct to theatre, of course. In fact, the rich academic field of fan studies was set up precisely to counter claims of fan engagements as unhealthy and isolating, their participants ‘sad’ or ‘insane’. Despite a long tradition of excellent scholarship, fan studies scholars have rarely ventured into the theatrical realm. Similarly, while performance studies has seen increasing interest in understanding audience experience, there has still been remarkably little scholarly attention paid to those theatregoers who could be defined as fans. As a consequence, we actually know very little about what happens variously when audiences see themselves as fans of the theatrical medium, when audiences become fans of a particular show, actor, or company, or when audiences are drawn into theatres via external fan engagement. What makes this gap even more startling is the strong historical trajectory of theatre fandom, with the founder of fan studies himself, Henry Jenkins, stating that one of the earliest uses of the term actually referred to female theatregoers, the so-called ‘Matinee Girls’. From 19th-century Bowery B’hoys to today’s loyal audiences, theatre has always attracted committed fan communities. Yet this activity has not always been taken seriously, either by performance academics or by theatre producers.

As one of the British Academy’s current Postdoctoral Fellows (2016-2019) I have been able to begin to plug this gap. Firstly, this is via my own research into audience engagements with regional theatre through time: a project that is incorporating an investigation of how certain audience members – via a prominent local Theatre Club – formed especially invested attachments with Bristol Old Vic, the longest continually-running theatre in the western world. Through this I’m hoping to find out what ‘supporting’ a cultural institution means to different people, and whether it’s possible to become a fan of a theatre building. Secondly, my British Academy support has enabled the establishment of a new network on Theatre & Fandom. The first step in this development was a one-day networking event and symposium held on 7th July 2017 in the Department of Theatre at the University of Bristol. Featuring keynotes by Professor Matt Hills (University of Huddersfield, UK), and Dr. Caroline Heim (QUT, Australia), the aim was to bring theatre people together with fan-studies scholars and develop ways of collectively taking seriously theatrical phenomena like pleasure, engagement, allure, enjoyment, and love.

The opening keynote by leading fan studies scholar Matt Hills began by asking how we can understand the erasure of fan discourse from theatre studies, proposing a form of ‘implicit fandom’ in which deeply invested audiences often act in fannish ways without defining themselves as such. Importantly, this asked us to think about how performance scholars and critics might be part of a fan community even if they consciously resist this label. Meanwhile, Caroline Heim’s keynote gave some necessary historical context from theatre studies, drawing from the Ancient Greek philosophies of hedonism / eudaimonism to compare theatrical engagements of the 19th and early-20th centuries with the pleasures of fan performance today. Explaining how theatre fans extend the experience beyond that of single-ticket buyers, Caroline Heim showed how audience ‘re-performances’ – like post-show discussions, merchandise collectorship, and so on – can be as (if not more) pleasurable than the in-the-moment experience itself. Alongside these presentations we then had two ‘research sharing’ sessions, which gave participants ten minutes – strictly policed by a buzzer – to give a less formal overview of their approach to theatrical fandom. From Kate Holmes’ work on female aerial celebrities in the 1920s-30s, to Andy Machals’ research into Las Vegas show theatre, to Agata Łuksza’s study of ‘excessive’ audience behaviour in 19th-century Poland, a number of contributors reflected on the unexpected ways their subjects had connected with fan studies frameworks. Other participants meanwhile had specifically set out to study fan-centric events, ranging from Helen Freshwater’s Leverhulme study of the emotional impact of War Horse to Laura MacDonald’s cross-cultural project on musical fans in the United States, Japan, and Korea.

I want to conclude this post by thinking a little more about why it actually matters that we understand theatre fans. What can this tell us about cultural engagement more broadly?

First of all, in an industry where arts institutions are struggling to capture and retain audience support, it seems more important than ever to understand how we might better harness fan energy in order to encourage wider theatrical participation. However, we also need to think carefully through the ethical and economic ramifications of seeing audiences in instrumentalist terms. Rather than studying theatre fandom either as acts of subversive resistance or as a co-optable source of marketing labour, it might be more productive to reconsider fan communities as networks with the potential to facilitate wider conversations around participation, engagement, politics, and community.

Secondly, if we’re serious about widening diversity within the arts then we really must understand how barriers to access actually work. This means we need to work on making our collective studies of theatre fandom genuinely intersectional, incorporating multiple layers of identity such as ethnicity; sexuality; class; economics (e.g. what about those people who can’t afford to be a fan?). Fan studies itself is currently struggling with this issue, and so – in a different way – is theatre studies. Can we find a way to struggle with it together?

Thirdly, studying fandom through a theatre lens raises important questions about the place of ‘live’ events within society. For example, Megan Vaughan’s contribution on the Tumblr communities formed around Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was just one of the times when we were prompted to think through questions of cultural democracy, inequality, and exclusion. We therefore need to consider not just the pleasures of performance but the ugly side of theatregoing too. For example, what happens when certain audiences, commentators, and / or institutions act as cultural 'gatekeepers'? Who gets shut out of arts events and their subsequent conversations, and how might models of acceptable behaviour (or audience ‘etiquette’) contribute to this? Although boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture are endlessly contested, this event showed how important it still is to understand how audiences’ engagements contribute to the (de)legitimisation of theatrical events. In other words, we can’t keep pretending that all theatre is weighted equally. Studying fandom can help us to understand how some forms of culture come to be valued over others – and who loses out as a result.

Both theatre and fan studies have been asking these questions for decades. Now seems the time to start learning from each other.

A theatre researcher at the University of Bristol, Kirsty Sedgman explores the interplay between audiences, cultural institutions, power, identity, and place. Her book Locating the Audience (2016, Intellect Ltd.) was the first to explore how people developed relationships with a cultural institution at the time of its formation: the then brand-new National Theatre Wales. She is currently working on a three-year British Academy postdoctoral research fellowship investigating regional theatre audience engagement. Contact her at www.kirstysedgman.com or on Twitter at @KirstySedgman.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by the British Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

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