A man and woman taking part in one of the meetings arrange by South East Dance's Ambassador Programme
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New ambassador scheme helps South East Dance to reach new audiences

Posted on 04 April 2016

Dance pieces can be exciting, varied and dynamic, but they can also be quite challenging. The more abstract the piece, the more difficult it can be for new audiences to appreciate and enjoy the work in front of them. South East Dance found this can create a barrier to future attendance.

To overcome this South East Dance developed an Audience Ambassador programme with a bit of a difference.

Audience Ambassadors

Typically organisations approach existing advocates to become ‘ambassadors’, using their passion to help encourage other people to attend performances.

However, South East Dance felt that this would not address the challenge in front of them and so they turned this on its head.

Instead, the team decided to work with those who had no experience of dance and use their insights to help break down barriers to attendance.

The ambition for the Audience Ambassador programme was two-fold:

  1. Change in Mind-set: the removal of barriers facing non-dance ambassadors attending contemporary dance, by prompting open and honest discussion about the process behind it.
  2. Advocacy: the ambassadors subsequently wanting to advocate for contemporary performance, via spreading the word to their contemporaries / undertaking activity for others to experience it.

“I feel much more willing to try shows that I would have shied away from in the past. My guest was absolutely blown away by the performance and is very keen to see more.” Debbie Caswell

The pilot

To test this concept, South East Dance put together a pilot initiative in 2014 with artist Julian Hetzel.

The main challenge for South East Dance was to reach a non-dance audience and encourage them to get involved. Reaching people outside your typical audience is never an easy task. Working from a blank canvas, South East Dance chose to take a very broad approach. This saw the team distribute a call-out for people to get involved through its local networks.

The message was very simple: South East Dance wanted to work with people who had no experience of dance.  Five people were selected from a range of respondents and they formed the pilot group of Audience Ambassadors.

The Ambassadors were given the chance to meet Julian on a number of occasions to talk about his work. These took place over a number of months and provided an opportunity for the Ambassadors to quiz the artist in a relaxed environment, building a greater understanding of what he was doing and why.

Each of the meetings was based on the principle that there is no ‘wrong’ question. The Ambassadors were able to ask anything they liked without fear of being judged.

Being an Audience Ambassador, I feel more confident, connected and passionate about contemporary dance Ratna Bibi

Phase two

Following a good response to the pilot, South East Dance chose to continue the Audience Ambassadors initiative in 2015; this time with artist Dan Daw.  

The team made two important changes to their approach, helping to refine the programme and increase its impact.

In place of a general call out for participants, South East Dance took a more targeted approach to recruitment. This was an important step in ensuring greater diversity in the group. The team achieved this by holding one-to-one meetings, telephone calls, research and approaching people via recommendations from organisations.

This approach meant the second group could be larger, from further afield and be far more diverse than the pilot. Participants included a tattooist, a comedienne and a representative from Cambridge University’s Medical Humanities Society.

Engagement

The second important change was to reduce the time between each of the meetings. Four sessions were held over 10 days rather than over a number of months. This helped the project retain greater momentum and keep it fresh in the minds of the Audience Ambassadors.

Initially the Audience Ambassadors were invited to a meal with Dan where they could talk about what his performance might be. Importantly, this also gave them the time and freedom to discuss why – or why not – they might choose to engage with the performance. The group was also invited to a Q&A session with Dan immediately following his performance to talk about the piece and how it was put together.

Knowing what went into the piece has allowed me to look at others with a new perspective – like I’m beginning to learn a new language” Lisa Sang, Audience Ambassador

These sessions provided an important bridge between the language used by the artist and that used by the audience. This helped the Audience Ambassadors to build a greater understanding of how more challenging pieces of work are made and what they could mean, not just to the artist, but to the audience as well.

As an artist I rarely get to chat with people who are using a different set of words to talk about what they’re seeing and what they’re perceiving and what they’re expecting.” Dan Daw, Artist

The third and fourth sessions provided further opportunities for the Audience Ambassadors to explore Dan’s work from their own perspective. One of the most important benefits of this was to remove any fear those involved had about getting things ‘wrong’. It also gave them the confidence to discuss the work with their peers outside of the sessions.

I’m really surprised at how changed my opinion has been and how much my mind has been opened to a whole world that I wouldn’t have considered before […] It’s empowered us to go to performances and not worry about being judged and having to get it right or wrong; just having an experience that I would never have considered before.” Holly Switzer, Audience Ambassador

Impact

The project has been a big success. Nearly all the participants in both the pilot and phase two said that they would continue to watch contemporary dance performances.

"Yes. (Actually), I attended another contemporary dance event in London and felt more comfortable expressing my opinions about how it made me feel. This was really such a great experience, there should be more places and (organisations)…who do it” Josephine Holt

In total, the Audience Ambassador scheme has directly worked with 44 members of the public. This has included 15 Ambassadors, 11 guests, a blogger and a representative from Independent Lives (Disability Organisation).

The scheme has also indirectly influenced a further 47 people, for example:

  • An Ambassador from the pilot was inspired to set up weekly dance classes for her students.
  • Other Ambassadors enjoyed the scheme so much that they shared their experiences with 30 of their peers from the WI (ages 40 – 80).

With more people interested in taking part, South East Dance is already planning its next cohort of Audience Ambassadors.

“I was surprised and delighted with the depth of engagement and enjoyment that these non-dance Ambassadors gained from the whole experience. We thought carefully and worked closely with the ambassadors to find out what the barriers to attending dance performances were. It was a joint experiment really, with the ambassadors, the artists and us. By gradually coming to know the artists and our team, the barriers for the ambassadors to speak honestly about the work were broken down. It became a real social event as well as a learning opportunity. Our ambassadors continue to attend dance performances and bring their friends – they really advocate for the art form … and as a consequence, for us and our work.” Cath James, Programme Director, South East Dance