Catherine Love: Can theatre ape Amazon with show recommendations?
The new season at Ovalhouse is showcasing an exciting new model for theatremakers and audiences
Anyone who has ever shopped online will be familiar with that tempting, tantalising list of items that now pops up immediately after a purchase: products you might also like. In the context of online shopping, this feature is no more than a canny attempt to get shoppers to part with more of their cash, but what if recommendations really were just that – things you might be interested in?
According to Ticketmaster's recent audience research, word of mouth remains the most influential source of event information for theatregoers; on the whole, we still rely on others telling us what we should go and see.
This idea of recommendations is one that Ovalhouse are taking and running with for their latest season of work in development. You Might Also Like is a series of five double bills of works-in-progress commissioned by the theatre, each playing for a few nights throughout October and November. The concept is that a London-based artist or company is paired with one from elsewhere in the country, offering audiences the opportunity to see two short pieces of theatre for a tenner.
There are a number of different, overlapping aims behind this approach. The first is one of national collaboration: by allowing artists from outside the capital the opportunity to share the audience of a London-based counterpart, new relationships are forged between artist and theatre, artist and artist, and artist and audience. The double bill format also offers a convenient way of introducing theatregoers to new work alongside a show from an artist or company they might already be a fan of. And finally, linked to this, the risk of trying something new is reduced once again by making the evening as affordable as possible.
Ovalhouse's approach is extraordinarily simple, but it makes complete sense. It reminds me of the double bills regularly programmed by The Yard in Hackney Wick, where you can often see two shows in one night for £15. The difference at Ovalhouse, however, is the deliberate focus on relationships between shows, artists and audience. The double bills are often thematically linked, or placed alongside one another in order to set up some kind of conversation between the work. In just one intriguing example, the cartoon romance of Christopher Brett-Bailey's new show is being put in a line-up with Andy Roberts' retelling of Terminator 2.
Offering audiences a way of stumbling across new and potentially exciting work like this is a brilliant idea, and one that others have also been experimenting with recently. During the six months I was working with Fuel on their New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood touring project, there were repeated discussions about the desire to build a relationship with Fuel as producers, so that audiences might be willing to take a punt on new work that they tour regardless of familiarity with the artist. Fuel create the trust, thereby removing some of the risk.
At this year's session of Devoted & Disgruntled, meanwhile, someone suggested the idea of programming live trailers by less established artists before bigger shows. The theatre trailer itself, of course, is nothing new, but this was a suggestion that theatre-makers might be able to perform a short section of their latest show as a teaser, hopefully attracting future audience members from the fan base of someone more established.
Whether Ovalhouse's tactic successfully manages to introduce audiences to new work still remains to be seen. As we know from our suspicion of those online recommendation lists, suggesting something on the basis of its supposed merit or relevance is not always free from disingenuous motives. If theatres can recommend and create the opportunity to genuinely discover new work, however, the possibilities are exciting for both audiences and artists.