Takeaways from the Esch2022 European Capital of Culture lead-up phase: How has the role of the audience changed?

Spectacle and entertainment have always existed in unison with collective existence. They’ve aided communality, encouraging release, immersion, and escapism. Over the centuries, the stage has become a revered entity — the facilitator of a unique type of sensorial and mental experience. At its core, the performance-heavy pulse of each staged live act significantly relies on co-existence: a mutual, if tacit permission of enjoyment and thriving granted by the audience to the performers, and vice versa. In some ways, the very act of staging a show is reciprocal insofar as it relies on a communion. Still, the distinction between stage and audience has always been a binary one: the former is active, putting on a show, while the former is static and observant. In the era of dizzying spikes in tech innovation, the binary’s relevance seems to be withering by the day, and several new formats have been trying to break the mold for a while. So we ask: what comes next?

With the unprecedented hit the live event industry has had to face as a result of the pandemic, our ways of doing business — and, of course, our aims and objectives for each project we take on — have undergone an equally unprecedented pivot.

The integration of new, cutting-edge technology into not just staging shows but rethinking the audience itself has naturally led us to a full refashioning of our methods, and to an enlightening discovery of the untapped potential that lies in every single audience we’ve ever assembled. If our years crafting immersive experiences in the industry has been all about exploring this potential, the past two years have instilled in us a desire to altogether transform its definition. All throughout the process of going from live to immersive, and from immersive to hybrid — whereby the public is immersed both physically and virtually–, one conclusion has emerged as undeniable: the role and power of the audience is changing. With the Esch2022 European Capital of Culture kick-off getting closer by the day, and its opening ceremony slated for February 26th, we take a closer look at the ways in which our dialogue with audiences has evolved over our ten years in the business — and we break down why.

1. Compelled bystanders: the power, role, and scope of the traditional audience

Audiences have always been an integral part of any show — like reactive mirrors, they’ve helped each staged experience fulfill its promise by engaging them. Each live experience relies heavily on a set location, with a specific spatial design narrative underpinning the reasoning for its choice. Even when static, the audience is instrumental in fulfilling the spatial storytelling upon which each staged performance is built. Whether in a theater, an open-air arena, a concert hall or a stadium, coexistence is — or at least used to be — what makes the show. Enablers of spectacle by design, audiences generate the staged experience not by doing, but simply by being, listening, observing — however passively.

With nearly a decade of experience staging opening ceremonies, festivals, cultural happenings, performances and other elaborate live acts, the audience has always formed an inextricable part of our fabric, from ideation to execution. As we grow and embolden our shift towards the hybrid mindset, and technology becomes an increasingly essential vector of our experience-crafting, is mere coexistence between the audience and performance starting to become obsolete?

2. We’ve gone hybrid — and so have our audiences

As other vectors have progressively begun to enter the staged picture, a broader palette of technological innovations has become available, and experience-making has become about much more than event production in the traditional sense. Through the advent of the Metaverse, Augmented and Extended reality, virtual immersion, and, more generally, hybrid happenings, audiences morphed into disembodied, modular agents coming to life through mental and emotional stimulation as well as sensory activation. Our very understanding of what it means to ‘view’, ‘listen’, or ‘feel’ has been changed through the permeation of the digital, and the isolating, collective physical stagnation brought about by the pandemic.

With the seemingly endless proliferation of new ways of retaining attention online, be it through social media or streaming services, maintaining interest IRL has become a more complex task than ever before — yet one we’ve made it our mission to deliver on. In the immersive hybrid culture we’ve fostered in the past few years, we’ve consistently championed the inevitable blurring of previously clear, physically determined boundaries separating stage from audience, and their impact on show production. What if, instead of simply acting as static viewers, audiences were empowered and trusted to help give shape to the experience itself?

To us, this boils down to reassessing the very meaning of the audience, and beginning to see it as a metaphor for the collective. In shifting the focus from the static, contemplative “what is happening?” to a much more engaged “I can affect what’s happening!”, audiences begin to break new ground, re-negotiating a space previously determined for them, interrogating established norms, dogmas, power dynamics, aesthetics, and methods of production in ways they were previously precluded from. Through immersion rather than observation, the space of the spectacle is equalized, democratized, striving to embrace change wherever needed — dusting off and upcycling the potential of rusty cultural institutions, making them more inclusive; making each experience count. In reaching far more people, and transcending borders, audiences can, through hybrid culture, become as chameleonic as the experiences themselves.

3. The audience as co-creators: behind Esch2022 European Capital of Culture

Our pandemic-propelled venture into the realm of the hybrid has laid the foundations of our approach to crafting each step of the Esch2022 lead-up phase, and the opening ceremony itself — all of which are in-depth expressions of the values, methods and philosophy hybrid culture is rooted in.

Motivated by a desire to reveal the true potential of audiences to themselves, we’ve been intent on moving further and further away from static audiences through exploring new formats of engagement, and over the past 10 years, we’ve become proud agents of co-creation. To effectively galvanize community members into becoming active agents, thus co-crafting an experience ‘by Esch2022, for the region’, the challenge of the REMIX Festival has resided in building a community unified around creative expression, making each participant feel seen and safe in always building on associative familiarity, and letting the community grow organically from the inside out. In essence, we planted the seed; the people made it grow, turning it into the collective effort it progressively transformed into.

“When it comes to co-creating with the audience, it’s all about trusting that the audience is smart, funny, capable of bold, abstract thinking,” explains our creative producer Gabriela Flores. “It’s essential to trust that the public has wild creative potential, and a willingness to go into the story with you. They want to be challenged and are willing to step out of their comfort zone, find the hidden messages, and read between the lines — if the story is strong enough to entice them.”

Through community-activating initiatives such as the Future Frequencies workshop, Esch2022moves, or the Space Program, we’ve gone past simply wanting to immerse audiences into visually or sonically catchy content. In doing so, we’ve sought to challenge them in unexpected ways, unleashing the explosive strength of their participative powers.

One thing is beyond doubt: the audience has come a long way. While aware of its roots, and honoring each and every step it’s needed to emancipate itself into a fluid, dynamic, and powerful collective organism, we’re intent on exploring new formats of engagement, always striving for new ways of surprising our audiences. In creating the concept and action plan for the Esch2022 European Capital of Culture festivities, we’ve tailored our understanding of the local audience in a bespoke way — as firm disbelievers in the ‘one size fits all’ approach. And to each member of our current and future audiences, we say: the power is yours.

Contributors:
Irina Baconsky, Editor for Digital Content
Gabriela Flores, Creative Producer
Andy Machals, Creative Producer
Brendan Shelper, Co-CEO and Executive Creative Director
Thao Tran, Strategy & Communications Manager

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