Comment: From panto to possibility: making a new year’s cultural resolution

Dr Sarah Price and Professor Stephanie Pitts from the University of Sheffield's Department of Music discuss why going to the theatre and engaging with the arts could be the best new year's resolution you make for 2019.

From panto to possibility: making a new year’s cultural resolution

By Dr Sarah Price and Professor Stephanie Pitts, 20 December 2018.

A stage door to a theatre

The high street shop windows and online retailers have been telling us it’s Christmas since mid-October, and the imagery of advent calendars, Christmas trees and stars is everywhere in their advertising. Just occasionally though, there will be an image that draws on other kinds of Christmas traditions: the larger than life nutcracker figure, the pantomime dame, or the fairy tale characters that hint at childhood memories of pantomimes, ballets and theatre trips. This year, a host of television celebrities from the familiar to the maybe more unlikely will be appearing in panto (“Oh no they won’t…”), passing on the traditions of that distinctive performance format to a new generation of children, and reviving memories for the parents and grandparents who accompany them. In other theatres and halls, there will be performances of glitzy ballets and exuberant classical music. The excitement of Christmas arts attendance is about familiarity, cheeriness and good company, rehearsing well-known and well-loved traditions.

The enjoyment of festive arts attendance is also aesthetic: audiences marvel at the skills of the performers, are moved by the beauty of the music and delight in experiencing works that they only get to hear once a year. Pantomimes, ballets and Christmas concerts are built on spectacle: they will be bright, vibrant, loud and all-embracing. They are also social occasions, drawing the audience into the performance, and creating a sense of occasion that soon becomes a reason to attend with the same people every year; our ‘ballet friends’ or the annual trip to the panto with our extended family. Going to these events together starts to become a ritual. Something is missing from the festivities if we don’t go.

Our research has found that these Christmas rituals come with a sense of guarantee. Audience members felt safe in the knowledge that they would almost certainly have a good night out because they have seen this event or something very similar to it before. As a result, they are often willing to pay a lot of money to attend. Our participants tended to book their tickets months in advance, making sure the date was in the diary, with the excitement building as the performance day approached.

There is something about the traditions of Christmas performances that can tempt even the most hardened arts cynic. We have interviewed people who run a mile from most dance, but can be persuaded to go with their partner to a festive Nutcracker or Swan Lake. Other people who would never be seen at a classical music concert, happily attend Christmas Eve carols without seeing that experience as part of the arts world.

Those same social and aesthetic pleasures of going to a performance are available all year round, but many festive attenders would claim that they do not know where to look. Theatres, arts centres, concert halls and churches will still be busy once the festivities have ended. Alongside the old familiar works, they will be showcasing new stories, new music, new dance. And in a time where the bottom is falling out of arts funding in the UK, these events need the support of local audiences more than ever.

However, it takes a very different mindset to go to arts events where the audience is not sure what is going to happen. New works are untried and untested, without the familiarity of something like The Nutcracker which has been enjoyed by generations before. The experimental end of new work - immersive theatre, interpretive dance and modern art - has a reputation for being weird and pretentious. But there are plenty of venues and performers out there putting on events that are witty, thought-provoking, down-to-earth or downright hilarious.

We have found that the people who get the most out of new art are those who walk in feeling that ‘it’s okay not to like it’. Even if it is not to their taste, they will have a fun experience with their friends, often for very little money. At best, they discover new talent or a hidden venue that no-one else knows about. At worst, or weirdest, they go home with a good laugh and an even better story to tell.

Going to small venues, local arts events and to see new works was even a source of pride for many of our interview participants. They were glad to be putting money into their local arts scene, feeling a sense of responsibility to keep it going. Just as independent shops are said to ‘do a little jig’ when they make a sale, every ticket counts for up-and-coming artists.

Being an audience member makes a difference, not just to the people applauding, but to the arts organisation, the local economy and the character of the town or city where all this is happening. We are continuing to investigate audience motivations and experiences through a national online survey, so whether your tastes lean towards the tried and tested or the new and unpredictable, we would love to hear your views.

So, this new year, why not ditch the gym memberships and the fad diets, and make a resolution to support your local artists. You might just find something that stays with you for the rest of the year.

Check out our website for tips on finding local arts events in your area.