Just before Christmas in an interview in the Times, Chichester's Church questioned "the amount of money that's been spent pursuing audiences who don't want to come in cities that don't really want theatre". He added: "Too much time has been spent creating work to find new audiences without supporting the audiences who came in the first place."
Church contrasted his experience at Birmingham Rep, a city of two million where he said he had to fight to get 15,000 people to come to a play, with Chichester, a city of 25,000 where 25,000 people will come. "Yes the audience here is older than average. But they're theatre literate. They're passionate. They built and supported the theatre and they're thirsty for new work. This is the only regional city I've worked in where 'new play' isn't two swearwords. So I think this audience is brilliant."
So where does that leave us? Clearly audience development that tries to broaden theatre's appeal and reach wider, younger and more culturally diverse audiences is important. After all you don't know if you're going to like something until you've tried it. But when leading theatre practitioners suggest that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water, maybe it's worth reminding ourselves that an audience is an audience, and all audiences are of equal value.
If theatres enter into contracts with audiences that really put the audience at the centre of their work, perhaps they will discover that the much derided traditional middle-class, middle-aged audience isn't as adverse to risk and innovation as they imagine.
The sentence that is bold is bold at my behest. Let me print it again: If theatres enter into contracts with audiences that really put the audience at the centre of their work... That seems to me to be key. It pertains not only to a tribal theatre discussion, but also the discussion of new plays as well: the Chichester audience, according to Church, is older but is committed to new plays. It also pertains to the discussion of seeking out smaller cities: Chichester is a city of 25,000 and it more enthusiastically supports a professional theatre than Birmingham, a city that is eight times larger.
Put the audience at the center of your work.