Revealing the beauty of using lab books for audience research
Can returning to pen and paper provide more in-depth audience research data?
The research team behind The Beauty Project, one of the Centre for Cultural Value’s first Collaborate-funded partnerships, assess the value of collecting audience reflections offline.
The Beauty Project is a collaboration between theatre company, Quarantine, physicist Rox Middleton, from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol and the Technische Universität Dresden, and philosopher Lucy Tomlinson. One of the first to be awarded a Collaborate programme research grant in June 2022, the partnership is exploring methodologies for better understanding and articulating the value of beauty.
As part of this process, research is focussing on whether audience members were affected by beauty during Quarantine’s 12-hour-long theatre performance of 12 Last Songs in Leeds, Brighton and Manchester.
Going back to basics
Initially, the team considered running workshops to explore audience participants’ feedback, but they found it was too difficult to bring the audience back together following the event. They also wanted to avoid recording audience responses during the show, as they did not want to interrupt the in-the-moment nature of attending the performance. The feedback also needed to help the team explore whether beauty remained for individuals after the event was over.
So, they went back to notebooks and handwriting. The team designed and sent out bespoke paper ‘lab books’, colouring pencils, and personalised notes to individual audience members by post after the event. They asked their subjects to handwrite and draw their reflections on memories of the performance, as well as their experiences in daily life, and big questions about beauty and value.
Sarah Hunter, artist and producer at Quarantine, says the idea behind the lab book came from a visit to Rox’s lab, where she was impressed by the beautiful way the lab books captured and documented her scientific processes:
“The lab books draw on Rox’s methodologies, Quarantine’s processes of asking questions, and Lucy’s philosophical research. The basis for 12 Last Songs and something that’s fundamental to a lot of Quarantine’s work is asking questions as a form for making a performance, and then the frame for beauty comes from Lucy’s philosophical research. So, the lab books felt like a way of bringing those three things together.”
Providing the audience with authority
Philosopher Lucy Tomlinson said the team felt it was important to give people their own authority over what they were producing:
“One of the tricky things about it, which is reflective of the whole project is: how do you take this quite visceral, immediate reaction and impose some sort of analysis of it without losing that immediacy? A big theme when we were discussing it was that we weren’t imposing our own ideas, we wanted people to create and go through their own reactions.”
Rox Middleton says the lab books were important in order to recognise the audience as experts:
“By giving the participants a lab book, you ask them to record their own experiences and contribute on their own terms. I think there is a lot of value in this kind of handwritten, visual way of exploring information.”
Participants reacted to the physical lab book and felt personally invested in the project. As Rox Middleton says, “People commented on how intensely lovely it was.”
Lisa Baxter, Partnership Manager for the Collaborate programme, reflecting on the team’s experience says this also chimes with her own practice of using paper workbooks for collecting reflections:
“There is a difference between typing and slow writing. Slow writing invites you to play. You’re inviting more depth, as you’re asking people to respond in a particular way.”
More work than digital approaches
Formulating, packing, and sending out the lab books involved far more work than a simple online questionnaire. Sarah Hunter notes:
“The lab books were a lot more work, but the feedback was that there is something special about receiving something that’s been sent to you. It confirms that we do really care about what they have to say.”
The team sent 55 lab books out and received 17 back. Audience members were self-selecting. Using contact information from the venue or festival box office system, the team emailed any audience member who had agreed to share their data.
The project team reflected that, alongside fulfilling funding bodies’ reporting requirements, it would be difficult for cultural organisations to regularly adopt this more time-consuming if rewarding approach to audience research.
Framing and coding lab books
The researchers set about analysing the data within the lab books by ‘coding’ the results. They read and re-read each response through a variety of ‘lenses’ to see where participants leant on a range of themes to describe their experience. The themes they investigated came from the philosophical literature on beauty, as well as theories from the field of performance studies and science studies.
In addition to using the lab books as the basis for data analysis, Lisa Baxter says collecting audience feedback in this way can also form part of practitioner development:
“This methodology is a useful process for practitioners to develop their audience sensibility and understand the impact of their work.”
A richer source of data
Though the books generated a smaller data sample than a digital survey, the research team found that the collected information was far richer by moving away from tick-boxes.
“There’s quite a lot of pressure to be completely digital now in terms of forms and surveys and being able to hand data back to funders. But this way of working shows there is something more that you can get from this.”
Through this analogue approach, the team now has a better insight into what remains with audience members once a performance is over. Sarah Hunter says:
“In the end, using the lab books worked really well. It was an interesting way to ask audiences to spend time thinking about something. I think we’ve got a whole wealth of information about how beauty has impacted people in life performance.”
Learn more about The Beauty Project and its findings.
Interested in evaluation and research methods? Join the Centre of Cultural Value’s online, free-to-access course: Evaluation for Arts, Culture and Heritage: Principles and Practice.