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7th November 2017 Bea Udeh

Othello and contemporary East London audiences #ADA

Amy Wilkes is the Marketing and Communications Manager at Wilton’s Music Hall and a Fellow on Audience Diversity Academy.  In this blog she shares how her learning from a touring production of Othello would feed into future agile experiments as part of her Fellowship on ADA 2.0.

 

“To fall in love with what she feared to look on!” 

Wilton’s has only been functioning as a full-time theatre since its renovation was completed under two years ago; since then we’ve been developing a high-quality diverse programme.

In May we hosted a production of Othello – it had previously been at Bristol Tobacco Factory Theatres and received outstanding reviews, so we had high hopes of bringing new audiences into Wilton’s. The production uses the original Shakespearian text and puts a focus on Othello as a Muslim through its use of costume and staging.

As outlined in my previous blog, Tower Hamlets’ demographic is almost one third Bangladeshi – by far the highest in the country, so we hoped to see a higher proportion of people from this community.

What was done

It’s important to mention that Wilton’s is a hiring house and therefore the responsibility for marketing falls to the production companies themselves, with some support from us, this limited how much input I could have. Both sides saw the mutual benefits of having this production at Wilton’s – we were both keen to engage with the local population.

The artwork for the show was a striking image of a black man in Islamic prayer:

As well as engaging local and diverse audiences through listings, digital marketing and schools, part of the initiative to get more local people into the building and to engage with the show was The Othello Project. This free day festival exploring themes in the show had a really diverse and exciting programme including a photography exhibition showing Islamic culture in East London, a live oud performance, and a hip-hop set from a Muslim woman of colour.  It was programmed with Amal, an organisation which champions Islamic arts.

Our content editor wrote a great blog post with an interview with the cast members playing Othello and Desdemona, in which Abraham Popoola (Othello) admits ‘the paranoia Othello feels, fuelled by the racism he encounters every day, that’s something I have felt.’ And highlighting the importance of this theme to the area: ‘he is a Muslim in hiding, he’s adopted Christianity in order to survive but his true faith is Islam… It’s so significant to be doing this play here in Tower Hamlets where there is such a large Muslim population.’

Set-backs and missed opportunities

Whilst The Othello Project did bring in a diverse crowd to the building on that day, the programme unfortunately came together very late and there wasn’t much opportunity for marketing, and not many of the plans we had discussed were able to be carried out. As this festival was a straight hire, which we had no financial or programming influence over, I was also unable to do any audience research at the festival, so have no way of knowing if the diverse audience which we got in the building was local.

The end of the run fell into Ramadan this year, a time during which Muslims are less likely to attend arts events and more likely to spend evenings with family, friends and community. Though suggestions were made to engage with local Islamic organisations and offer dates at the interval and after the play, these suggestions weren’t acted on, and we didn’t address this in any other way.

A suggestion was made to translate flyers into Bengali for local distribution, and target Bengali speakers on Facebook, but there wasn’t room in their budget for this.

Results

From a survey sent to bookers I know that we succeeded in getting a local audience in, with 29% of responders being from East London, and E1 being the most common postcode area.

However, 73.5% were White British, only 11% of responders people of colour, only 1 Bangladeshi / Bangladeshi British responder, and just 3 Muslims.

Feedback on the show was overwhelmingly positive, with people really enjoying the modern interpretation. Perhaps we can see this as just the first stepping stone in reaching local and diverse audiences, and something to learn from.

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