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The blog of small things #ADA

Melanie Murphy, ADA Fellow, is coming into the Audience Diversity Academy from all angles and in manageable steps.

I can’t believe that January is over. This year began apace and is hurtling along at an uncompromising speed. Amongst the many priorities for the RAD as we approach our centenary in 2020, marked by a move to a state of the art new building, a cultural engagement plan, a new multi-lingual website, a refreshed brand identity…and breathe. Tackling diversity, was seeming like one too many things.
At the start of the year I was feeling overwhelmed and ready to call time on the AMA Diversity fellowship. Diversity in dance issues are prevalent across the industry from dance companies through vocational schools and affecting every area of our organisation. The enormity of the task was weighing heavy. But, with the help of my mentor; I realised that this is not my issue to solve. It is not an issue that can be ‘solved’, easily or in its entirety. So what now?
As proverb says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Lightened by this realisation and inspired by the thinking behind “scrappy” experiments the second realisation came; sometimes it’s the little things that matter.
Language matters. So step one, devise a coherent language and terminology for the whole organisation to identify and speak to diverse audiences. Step two, create a content plan to acknowledge a range of important days, festivals and holidays important to our global members and audiences and ensure they feel seen and heard. Step three, embed inclusive thinking into planning and practice across the organisation rather than at the end of the process. These three small but achievable things will and are already, making a difference. Most gratifying of all some unprompted, positive feedback on social media from our audience. It’s the small things!

Climbing Access Mountain – from base camp to summit the long way round #ADA

The Audience Diversity Academy may seem like a long way to the mountaintop.  In Fellow Emma Oaks’ final blog-telling, the triumphs always outweigh the challenges.

The trip was planned, the teams were briefed, and as long as there was a clear leader everyone seemed keen to find a way to the summit.

However, it soon became apparent that there are several different rival camps on our own little mountainside. Camp A was in the village community, disapproving of the climbing party and of the perceived elitism of where they had come from, scoffing at our team of aging but willing Sherpas and seemingly expensive equipment without realising that it was fraying at the edges. Camp B stayed at basecamp and neither moved up or down the mountain, daunted by the scale of the climb and the potential cost of the attempted journey, after all no-one was making us climb it and we could just move the tent a few feet closer if they did. Camp C could see the summit from where they had pitched their tent and would have loved to see the view, but couldn’t summon the energy to climb, choosing to read the guidebooks instead. Finally there was a quiet little group starting out at the bottom of the hill, faintly exhausted but with a determined stride.

To make things that little bit more interesting, those at Basecamp would never admit to such a thing, preferring to make the journey just a little bit more difficult in the hope of quashing any enthusiasm, metaphorically chucking snow over our tent and telling us there’s an avalanche. Little did they know, we’ve got our crampons on and we’re heading to the summit, no matter how long the climb, reassured in the hope of meeting other climbers along the way.

My first SOS call was in autumn 2018, throwing myself on the mercy of our team of trusty Sherpas. I showed them my map, pointed out the peaks that I hoped to pass and the gullies I was trying to avoid. I wondered if anyone could help me plot an easier route to the summit? or if anyone would like to join me on my epic climb? No offers of help were forthcoming, but a few did point me in the direction of other paths, dozens of paths in fact, all leading in different directions.

A new group of climbers was what we needed, untainted by the memory of failed climbs. For safety we decided to attach a rope between the climbers, to avoid anyone slipping back down the mountain side to basecamp, or worse still falling into one of the numerous time gullies that ran alongside the path. This group would be armed with some previous mountain experience and up-to-date training and would be keen to learn from one another and push ahead with courage and fresh eyes. Together we drew a new map of our route to the summit, planned how we could avoid obstacles along the way, imagined the view from the top and inspired each other to get training in preparation for what was to be a long but rewarding climb.

Together we drew a new map of our route to the summit, planned how we could avoid obstacles along the way, imagined the view from the top and inspired each other to get training in preparation for what was to be a long but rewarding climb.

The training started in earnest in November 2018. And even in training I have lost my footing, plummeting briefly into time gullies that threatened to suck me off the path. I hit severe weather in mid-January that put a halt to any training, and I had no option but to wait patiently for the storm to clear before I could continue.

If training goes to plan, the date for the start of the climb has been set for 16 March 2019.

Climbers roped together = 15

Time gullies = eleventy billion

Severe weather = 1

Avalanches = 0

Experimenting with family workshops to increase take-up #ADA

[CONTACT BETH on 07888753521]

Emilie McGroaty and Tom Spurgin are Audience Diversity Academy Joint Fellows with big plans to take over their virtual world by storm in small segments.

We are conducting an experiment as part of a large-scale audience diversity project called The Virtual Orchestra, which aims to make orchestral music accessible to people with no, low or lapsed engagement with it. The Virtual Orchestra is a four-year, £600,000 project which ran in Bedford earlier this year, is still running in Leicester, and will visit Canterbury and Basingstoke in 2019. 


The problem 

From analysing the data that we captured from the family workshops that we ran in Bedford early this year, we could see that they were well attended but weren’t hitting our priority audiences, either in terms of audience segmentation or priority wards within the area. We found that most attendees were already engaged in other cultural activities in and around Bedford, and thus concluded that our offer and the campaign surrounding it was not well-tailored to our priority audience: people with no, low or lapsed engagement with the arts. 


The experiment 

Following a conversation we had with our ADA Mentor Sara Devine, we created an experiment that split our family workshop audience into two groups: those that had no or very little engagement with arts & culture (priority families) and families who were already engaged with arts & culture in some way (engaged families). We decided that the two groups needed two different offers that reflected the varying barriers to entry of the different groups.We wanted to grow our target family audience whilst continuing to meet the needs of our engaged families. 


Target families offer 

  • Free and unticketed 
  • Held offsite in a known location e.g. community centre 
  • Offering non arts-based incentives like free food and drinks 
  • Use of community gatekeepers to access this audience 


Engaged families offer 

  • Tickets cost £3 per person and could be purchased in advance via the Philharmonia’s website or on the day at the installation 
  • Held at the main site of the installation in Leicester city centre 
  • No additional incentives offered 
  • Contact with families made through traditional marketing and advertising campaigns

Results so far 

The first target family workshop that we ran in a priority ward (St Matthew’s, LE1 2) was attended by 35 people, in comparison to an average family workshop size of four in Bedford. Not only are the numbers useful for reinforcing our methodology but there are some inspiring stories too. One child that attended a target family workshop at her local community centre re-engaged with the project by visiting the main virtual orchestra installation the next day in the city centre. Furthermore, one of the gatekeepers for the community re-engaged by bringing a group of 30 to the main installation. It’s still early days but the results so far have been encouraging 

Targeted Experiments #ADA

Fuel Theatre Twitter screenshot

Sustaining an audience development campaign can only be done once the framework has been designed and tested as Audience Diversity Academy Fellow, Emilie Wiseman explains.

Last time I wrote about our experiments as part of the Audience Diversity Academy, we had just appointed two key ambassadors to help us reach out to young people aged 16-25, refugee communities and people from Afro-Caribbean heritage. We were embarking on our experiments and focussing our efforts on very targeted activity and personalised approaches to key groups local to the venue for the show: Ovalhouse in the Oval/Brixton area of London. This type of activity was also supported by targeted invitations on social media. 

Fuel Theatre Twitter screenshot

Our objective was to ensure that at least 30% of our audience was booking tickets following those approaches. Refugees were offered free tickets while young people and people from Afro-Caribbean heritage were offered heavily discounted tickets (£5 against a standard ticket price of £15). As ever, our audience engagement commitment needed to be balanced with our financial targets and although we were hoping to sustain the offer across the two week run of the show at Ovalhouse, we could only offer it for the first four shows. In a way, this enabled us to focus our attention and resources.

We also offered free meals and workshop options in a bid to further incentivise attendance from our target audience groups.

These ambassadors were so well connected that they enabled us to reach out to key target groups.

We were all very excited by the offer we had at our disposal and the amazing ambassadors we had managed to contract for the show. These ambassadors were so well connected that they enabled us to reach out to key target groups. A special push was done for the press night and we feel that this was the most successful night. A local group of refugees who had recently made their way from Calais came to the press night as well as young people from a local poet group.

We’re currently gathering the venue’s box office reports and our feedback cards to see how we’ve done against our targets but simple observation at the first three performances indicate that we have probably reached some of our targets. The response to the show on social media also seems to support this.

Fuel Theatre Twitter screenshot

This is all very hopeful but the real challenge will be to sustain this work throughout the tour and outside London in particular, where we are less connected to local communities.

The end of the road #ADA

Year 5 pupils from Oasis Academy  Hobmoor Birmingham

Audience Diversity Academy Fellow, Anais Vanais-Cooper reflects in her final contribution on some very interesting and rewarding experiences. 

As you may know we at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust are holding immersive days as part of The Arts Council England’s Museums and Schools initiative. 

 I started out to see how the children felt when they were told they have the opportunity to guide in a historic house and what the outcome of that would be.  Would they be encouraged to come to museums and be confident in the surroundings after their visit or did it put them off?  I am pleased to say that the majority were happy and confident to come back and go to another museum with their parents and peers.  

I cannot deny that there were and are some difficult times when things do not go to plan and you need to re-evaluate the situation and turn it into a positive.   But what has to be at the forefront of your mind is that this whole project is giving an opportunity to children that they may not have had otherwise  and the benefits that they are receiving and feeling  are  beyond measure.   

I have been involved with this project for nearly a year and it is not yet finished as it will continue and I will find out the outcome of my initial experiment in just over a year from now. 

However, the education team have been involved with the Schools project for over 3 years. 

The project has evolved over those three yearseach year with a newly devised activity plan to fit the funding brief. This year we have included outreach sessions – as well as the schools coming to us we go to them. 

As part of the offer we provide Arts Award Discover activity booklets (which are covered by the funding) so that the children can record what they do when they come to the houses to have their immersive day.  

We have exceeded the target number of children achieving Arts Award at Discover Level with over one thousand awarded over 3 years; our original target was 300. 

We also have a web page which the children contribute to by picking out their favourite item from the Trust’s Collection, including items on display in the houses. They draw their favourite in their booklet and we put it up on our website. Here is the link for you to see. 

It’s all very well telling you what we have done with the numbers and such, but what has it done for the children, for me and the team that I manage in Hall’s Croft?  

Well, for a start, from the comments we have had from the children (see Blog 2) we see that this has opened up a whole new world for them and they have learnt so much from it. The children gained confidence and were empowered to be able to speak to their peers without being embarrassed or intimidated, as this was special knowledge which they had gained and were telling their peers about. 

Our visitors to Hall’s Croft, of which we have had over 3000 since the beginning of the AMA study, have been very positive and in awe of the children’s enthusiasm and keenness to learn and to impart the information which they had gained about the history of the house.  

As for the Hall’s Croft team, we are always happy to see them and it makes us very proud to know we are sharing a special experience with the children. 

As for me, I have learnt so much from them including the tenacity they have exhibited in wanting to work so that can deliver a good talk, the willingness to share information with their peers and their confidence in talking to the general public. It has made me very proud to be part of this experience and this is the best thing I think I have ever done for a project. The project continues next year.  


Anais Vanian-Cooper is a Fellow of the Audience Diversity Academy and has devised an ‘experiment’ that brings young people into her organisation to experience something new and hopefully long-lasting.  In this blog, Anais shares some of her starting points.

We at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust are holding immersive days as part of The Arts Council England’s Museums and Schools initiative.  Working with our education department we at Hall’s Croft, and across two other sites, are holding twice weekly sessions where children from across the Midlands come and be a guide for the day.

I wanted to find out initially how these children felt when they were told they have the opportunity to go to a heritage property and guide visitors round the property. I began to look to see how the children felt coming to the house and what their expectation was. I asked them how nervous they felt and whether this was an impossible task for them to fulfil? Did they feel that this was a challenge they could rise to?

The experience starts with our team going over to the schools – telling the class what will happen and distributing the information that they will need to become guides.  The Talk is written in collaboration with the Education Department and the House Manager, so that it is tailored to the needs of the children.  The school then has the chance to have a familiarisation session before they embark on the journey of self-discovery (as for many this is what it is).

Most children reported that they felt very nervous when they were told that they were expected to give talks to strangers and get feedback from the house manager. I have to compliment the children for embracing this opportunity and giving it their all, the quiet ones were the ones that came out of their shell and the really confident ones decided that History is a subject they would pursue because they liked the experience so much.

So how do we know what the children experienced and what they thought about it? We set up a questionnaire from the beginning asking how they felt before the visit and after.

You can see from these comments what the outcome was.

(If you require more information about this and the schools please contact Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Education department).

As you can see from the comments below this programme has been an empowering event in the lives of these children and the confidence it has given them.

How did you feel beforehand?

  • very nervous
  • anxious
  • worried
  • excited
  • scared and nervous
  • happy because I was going to be a guide
  • special – not every school gets this opportunity
  • incredible – being a leader
  • felt like a VIP
  • not sure if I could do it

How did you feel afterwards?

  • brave
  • happy now I can talk to people
  • relieved
  • confident and professional
  • excited
  • happy to tour guide for the first time
  • scared then confident
  • lovely day
  • nervous then happy and excited, now confident
  • scared at first but now proud of myself
  • stand up for myself more
  • confident that I can do it
  • will be able to do talks in the future
  • uncomfortable in the beginning but now much more confident
  • want to bring my family and guide them through the houses
  • joyful
  • fabulous
  • fantastic
  • stupendous
  • tremendous
  • We were nervous with the small groups to begin with but got more confident.
  • I was nervous at the beginning and then reading the script I felt better
  • I got the attention of the people and then the others started listening.
  • I understand how my teacher feels – you have to repeat every single thing!
  • I felt appreciated and people were grateful.
  • like I’d accomplished it
  • very happy – people doing their part
  • felt successful
  • It felt good to know people were listening.

How did the visitors react to you?

  • They were asking us questions because we were so informative.
  • Someone said that we’re stars.
  • Someone said ‘You’re amazing!’
  • People were happy – they said they have learnt something and will pass it on
  • (The visitors were really positive and said how much they enjoyed the kids being at the house)

How do we follow it up?

We have questionnaires that are sent to the schools to see what the experience was like for the children and teachers.  We take the information to use for the following year to gain more knowledge and improve what we offer.  This has been for Hall’s Croft a learning experience and we are loving every minute of it.

Image courtesy of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust © Megan Taylor.


The Penny Drops #ADA

Anais Vanian-Cooper is curious to try and find ways to inspire young people to see the heritage sector as part of their everyday future.  Working at Hall’s Croft Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and now an Audience Diversity Academy Fellow, Anais ponders what this journey is about.

Having been a manager of Hall’s Croft William Shakespeare’s elder daughter’s house for the last 3 years, I was told that we would be holding immersive days.  Immersive into what I thought not having come across one of those before.  Then the penny dropped, it was schools immersive day as part of The Arts Council England’s Museums and Schools initiative.  Working with our education department we at Hall’s Croft and across two other sites were going to hold twice weekly sessions where children from across the Midlands would come and be a guide for the day.  

When the children arrived there were some nervous faces.  But after familiarising themselves with the space and their talk which they had practiced at school they soon got into the swing of things and started to talk to the visitors freely.  The visitors were surprised and impressed. 

It set me thinking as to how many of these children would have the confidence in the future to go to other museums without feeling intimidated and were they actually enjoying what they were doing.  

So I decided for my experiment to see what impact an experience like an immersive day held for these children.   How would it shape their future, did it make them more confident or did it inspire them to want to work in the heritage sector. 

And with this my journey of discovery begins.

Growing BSL audiences #ADA

ADA Fellow Parvati Pindoria explains how the Octagon reached out to the D/deaf community in Bolton to find out why BSL performances were the least attended of the Octagon’s accessible performances.

The beginning
Before joining the Audience Diversity Academy (ADA), we had already identified, as a theatre some of the audiences that we wanted to develop by looking at the results of our annual Audience Survey and seeing the gaps that existed. We decided we wanted to see more audiences from BAME backgrounds, more young people and audiences with additional needs.

The problem
Like many theatres, we put a lot of time into arranging accessible performances for all of our productions. Looking at the attendance figures for our BSL, Audio Described and Captioned performances we realised we weren’t reaching the people that we were providing this service for. Often, promoting our accessible performances came as an after-thought to our original campaign plan, which was too late in the day to be effective. We were too caught up in our usual routine of marketing activity to pay close attention to why we weren’t reaching these and audiences and how we could do that.

The challenge
The Octagon is undergoing a major redevelopment and one of the main reasons we are overhauling the building is so that our space can be completely accessible for our patrons and staff. Before we go back into the building in 2020, I wanted to find out how we can bring down the barriers that prevent people from accessing our work. Our BSL performances were the least well attended of our accessible performances so we started an investigation about how we could reach the D/deaf community in Bolton and what might prevent them from or encourage them to attend one of our events.

We decided we needed to find out more about the d/Deaf community and think about how we were going to tailor our communications to d/Deaf people.

We started a conversation with the Bolton Deaf Society, a local organisation providing health, social and employment services to hundreds of people in the d/Deaf community in Bolton every week. We found out that one in six of us have some form of deafness and this increases, as we get older. With 62% of our audiences aged 55 and above, we realised that this group is really important to the Octagon. The Bolton Deaf Society was really enthusiastic to collaborate with us and help spread the word about our services. From this initial conversation, we decided we needed to find out more about the d/Deaf community and think about how we were going to tailor our communications to d/Deaf people. We invited a group of service users from Bolton Deaf Society to attend one of our BSL performances and arranged a meeting for a few days after their visit to get their feedback on the experience. We had five new attenders to our BSL performance, this was the first time they had experienced the Octagon and for some of them it was their first time at the theatre at all.

From the initial moment when they stepped into the venue they encountered problems. We gained feedback on our website, posters and flyers, Front of House operations, the positioning of the seats we had reserved for them, the positioning of the signer in relation to the action, the quality of the signing and their experience of the show. The feedback was invaluable!  We identified so many areas for improvement and most importantly gained insight into the perspective of the people we wanted to reach. We had invited this group to come for free but they told us that the cost of the ticket was going to be one of the biggest barriers preventing d/Deaf people from attending. We knew it was important to feed this information back to the rest of our organisation and as a start we set about making changes to our communications about access performances so that they were more purpose built and targeted.

The bigger picture
We knew the changes that we needed to make were bigger than creating bespoke marketing materials. We applied for and secured funding from Ambition for Ageing for an intervention that meant we could create a long lasting relationship with the older d/Deaf community in Bolton. The funding meant that we could offer free tickets to over 50s in the d/Deaf community who would need to attend a Captioned or BSL interpreted performance. With support from Bolton Deaf Society the funding has also enabled us to arrange staff training on welcoming d/Deaf audiences, hire a BSL interpreter to welcome BSL users to performances, filmed BSL information videos about our organisation for our website and arranged a BSL interpreted meet and greet with the cast of our next production.

The aim is to bring access to the forefront of our whole organisation.

The future
We had 10 declared BSL users at the BSL performance of our festive production, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and we hope that this number will keep growing as we continue to grow our offer and deepen our relationship with the d/Deaf community. The aim is to bring access to the forefront of our whole organisation. I am looking forward to going back into our new building where we will have more opportunities to seek and improve how we serve our community.

BSL video information




Parvati Pindoria is Communications Officer at the Octagon Theatre Bolton.

Images courtesy of Octagon Theatre Bolton ©. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Octagon Theatre Bolton, 2018. 

Access All Areas #ADA

A technicolour kite in a blue sky floating above a row of cumulus clouds

Audience Diversity Academy Fellow, Emma Oaks shares with us how she is converting perceptions of her organisation, Buxton Opera House, one ambassador at a time.

As well as our beautiful but inaccessible Edwardian theatre, we also have a cinema that offers accessible screenings. Customer diversity is important to us as a company, but we have to demonstrate that we can provide an accessible experience before customers even step through the door. So, the experiment was to create a team of Access Ambassadors made up of staff, volunteers and community contacts who could spread the word about what we’re trying to achieve and share our passion for inclusivity with the wider community.

I must admit, with the faint whiff of disinterest coming from some quarters, combined with an un-successful first attempt at recruitment, that I wasn’t expecting anyone to be beating down the door to help with Access in either of our venues. However, there is a genuine interest in the Opera House itself as a beautiful iconic building, and in its long term survival following a closure 40+ years ago.

Having made contact with a few external groups to establish what access provision was available locally, I then contacted our own volunteer database to gauge interest in an Access Ambassadors group. I was pleasantly surprised by the almost immediate response from some volunteers and the recognition from them that improving access was essential to growth.

An initial group of 11 volunteers expressed an interest and we arranged to meet to discuss the potential of the group, what the aims would be, potential training that might be useful and how everyone’s personal experience could contribute to the project. Most of the volunteers had a backstory that reflected their interest in access as a subject, from grandchildren with autism; working with isolated adults; and personal hearing loss.  Our usual pool of volunteers is typically retirement age, so it was refreshing to have a wide age range represented in the access group – from mid-20s to mid-80s – although the majority were still 60+.

This led to very different contributions around promoting our accessible productions, with a high proportion being against social media, but several offers of support in attending community events.

As a group we developed a vision board that showed where our imagination might take us in the future. Interestingly the group focussed very much on our famous welcome and how fabulous our venues are along with an emphasis on the importance of the team working together. We finished the meeting knowing that we’re not perfect as an accessible venue, but as a team we’ll do what we can to make sure everyone has a good time – what a great starting point!

In all we recruited 15 volunteers, one of which is a full-time member of staff, two are from external community support groups and I’ve just turned customer services complaint about access into a new volunteer. Facilitating the group raised its own communication challenges – not everyone is on email; not everyone can use a phone due to hearing loss; and we don’t have an accessible meeting space in the Opera House, but we’re working round these as best we can. Since the meeting we’ve put a basic training plan for the group in place that includes autism awareness and a talk by Age UK. Our first event is planned for Disabled Access Day in March.

I’m faintly terrified by the size of the access project overall, but creating this Access Ambassadors potential group will certainly go a long way to helping spread the work load and reach more customers.

Money, money, money #ADA

With money seems to come more flexibility or the green light to take plans and experiments forward.  Does a red light stop the intention dead?  English Touring Opera Fellow of the ADA 3.0 shares this blog about the next steps for their strategic journey.

I was so close to getting my experiment up and running.  I had written a proposal, did market research, spoken to our partner venues and other arts organisations and everyone was excited about my audience development scheme.  I was set to press ‘go’ but with one short email, my dreams of getting this revolutionary ticket scheme dissolves into nothing. Senior Management loved the idea but there was no funding so I had to pump the breaks, do a U turn and return the shiny sports car to the show room…

As much as we, in the arts, try to not to talk about the ‘M’ word, we can’t avoid it.  It is, unfortunately, at the heart of everything we do.  As I sat at my desk, very deflated with the knowledge that my experiment had been halted because there wasn’t enough money, I wondered how many great ideas had never seen the light of day because of funding.  Even the little one man show in the basement of a pub in the middle of nowhere at least needs petrol money for his sins.  It makes me really sad to think about how much art and creativity we have missed out on because people don’t have the funds to bring their ideas to fruition.

In this current climate, it is harder than ever to justify why we need money to the arts.  How do you convince someone who has never been to the opera why they should spend millions of pounds on it, when they are worried about the implications of Brexit?  You may argue that commercial shows in the West End don’t need public funding but I would remind you that they have a lot of private investment and the ticket prices are sky high.

How do we create beauty when we are restricted by our means?  We tried using unpaid interns but that doesn’t fix the problem and is highly unethical and elitist (as only those that receive support from their wealthy parents can afford to do these roles).  We all work extra hours without pay but again that doesn’t fix the problem.  Even if there is a pot of money, if the powers that be aren’t convinced by your idea or the money has been spent elsewhere, how do you get your idea off of the ground?

I ruminated (sulked) on this for a while.  After lots of cups of tea and a couple of bourbon biscuits I noticed that I was the guest of honour at my own pity party so I rammed a couple more biscuits in my mouth and started to think about ways I can make this experiment work.  With the kindness, patience and wisdom of my mentor I decided to scale back my idea and will ask the Development team to apply for funding.

I may graduate from the Audience Diversity Academy having not finished (or even properly started) my experiment but I will end this experience knowing that my idea will happen, no matter the cost.

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