Ragnhild Tronstad: Artistic Quality and Audience Participation in Theatre for Young Audiences

Ragnhild Tronstad's Paper from Day One of the ITYARN Conference 2019

A Paper by Ragnhild Tronstad, Kulturtanken – Arts for Young Audiences Norway
Presented at the Conference of the International Theatre for Young Audiences Research Network (ITYARN), part of the ASSITEJ Artistic Gathering 2019 in Kristiansand, Norway. You can see the Roundtable that followed this paper at the following link: Roundtable on Collaboration with Youth in TYA.

Abstract: The Cultural Schoolbag (TCS) is an arrangement that provides all school pupils in Norway aged 6-19 several encounters each year with professional Art of all kinds. The state agency Kulturtanken – Arts for Young Audiences Norway (AYAN) holds national responsibility for TCS, and for ensuring that TCS as a national arrangement upholds high artistic quality. To attend to this part of its mandate, the R&D department of AYAN has launched a three-year strategic project addressing “quality in TCS” with different methods and from a variety of perspectives. In this paper, I will focus specifically on how the concept of “artistic quality” is challenged by contemporary practices of audience participation in Theatre for Young Audiences. 

Quality is a difficult and indeed contested concept to use in relation to Art and aesthetic experience. It is fundamentally ambiguous: without further specification, it can refer to an objective as well as a subjective reality. It is normative when used as part of a value judgement, and descriptive when used as a value-neutral characteristic of specific features of a performance. 

The concept of “artistic quality” may seem to be less ambiguous and a way of specifying what kind of quality we are addressing. However, this is not necessarily true. “Artistic quality” can well be an objective reality unrealised by the experiencing audience subject. “Artistic quality” rests on norms for artistic practice that depend upon, and vary between, different historical traditions and art forms. To recognise and appreciate artistic quality often demands familiarity with the type of artistic expression in question. 

To articulate the specific “artistic qualities” of a Theatre performance, a skilled reading of the work is required, where the work is related to other works and evaluated according to a set of standards relevant to its genre or tradition. The “artistic qualities” of a Theatre performance inscribing itself into one tradition cannot be adequately evaluated according to standards and criteria belonging to a different tradition. 

Contemporary practices of audience participation in Theatre for Young Audiences challenge the concept of “artistic quality” by undermining the standards and criteria for “good art” established by mainstream theatre. To adequately judge and relate qualities characteristic of participatory and interactive Art, we may need an alternative set of tools and criteria that enable us to recognise these artistic practices on their own terms, and to acknowledge and recognise their most essential artistic qualities. 

In this paper, I will seek to articulate some of the qualities characteristic of Participatory Theatre that involve Young Audiences today. My aim is to approach a better understanding of how a concept of artistic quality can be identified, articulated and relevantly applied to performances of this kind.