Theatre Fandom Conference- University of Bristol

In a departure from reviews I’m writing about an academic symposium  this week. I’m doing this for 2 reasons.

Firstly it’s a part of my life being a (sort of) academic as well as a blogger, writer and all the other theatre related things. Secondly it’s a conference about theatre fans, and I’m passionate about all academic work being shared with everybody. Finally just because it was held in a University doesn’t mean it should just be ‘academics’ in there and as (hopefully) this is just the first event of it’s kind, other theatre professionals should get involved.

Organised by Kirsty Sedgeman (@KirstySedgeman ) this symposium was an informal affair for people to get together and talk about theatre and fandom (or ‘theatre fans’ if you prefer I personally have always hated the term fandom). Why? well why do academics do anything? More nobly as a means of understanding the world around us and recording information. Honestly? a sense of curiosity and nosiness. Most of us in that room were theatre ‘people’ most of us would consider ourselves ‘theatre fans’. The discipline of ‘Fan Studies’ has been around for about 20 years but is heavily situated in film/TV and Media Studies and although people (myself included) have tried to indicate that fans exist in the theatre world- and indeed respond to work in a very different way sometimes to their film and TV counterparts, it seemed nobody was that interested.

However the gathering of around 25 people yesterday indicated that interest in what fans of theatre do to express their love of the work is growing. We had people who research historical instances of fans in theatre. This included Agata Luksza from Poland sharing historical experience of 19th Century fans, as well as Kate Holmes sharing historical accounts of circus audiences in the 1920s and 30s along with Katherine Kavannagh also representing circus and the history of fan followers of the genre in the UK and USA.

There were plenty of contemporary reflections as well, from Helen Freshwater considering audiences who appear to be fans of crying returning to ‘War Horse’ over and over. To Laura MacDonald considering fans in Europe and Asia, and Megan Vaughan observing the way fans of Harry Potter share infomation within their community. Among these more commerical and mainstream elements, the Live Art community was also represented with Owen Parry’s The Fan Riot Porject and Beth Emily Richards sharing her experiences of practice as research.

From this all-too-brief summary it’s clear there’s a wide spectrum of research interest not just in theatre performance itself but in how audineces are responding to theatre. This is great news for both theatres/artists and audineces. Firstly for those creating work, it’s imporant particularly in the times we live in, to know how people resond to your work. And to have people looking at that on both the bigger picture sense and the focused mannerin which academics tend to do, is going to inform arts organisations in the future.

For the audiences themselves, perhaps for people reading this blog, I think this research is really important. It’s saying that someone is interested in you. In what you have to say. Particularly for those fans who input labour into perhaps blogging, sharing on message boards, creating fanworks or simply engaging with fellow fans. It often feels like an invisible practise. Or at least dwarfed by the bigger more shiny fans of trendy things live Marvel films. However everyone in that room (ok everyone but one, but there’s always one) was a fan of fans. Mostly they were a fan themselves.

I wrote this blog because I don’t like academics that keep what they do secret. I don’t like the idea of observing people like you’re David Attenborough. I like to plant my flag, announce my repsence and say ‘tell me what you know, because you probably know more than me’. So here’s my flag; academics are interested in theatre fans, and I think it could lead to some really great conversations in the coming years when my colleagues and I are out there. We love theatre like you d (we also hate theatre like you do) and we’re sitting in rooms talking about it because we love it too.

So what next? well we formed an informal group (yes that’s all a bit Monty Python) in order to keep in touch, help each other out and maybe do some writing about it. Mainly we agreed we want to wake Theatre Studies as a genre up and get them paying attention to audiences. But also give Fan Studies a nudge and a reminder that people are fans of theatre too.

Academia gets a bad reputation. Hell I give it a bad reputation (often deserved) but sometimes, some people come along with a really nice idea to take things out of the dark ages and into something genuinely exciting. And for once it was nice to be a part of that.

And what of my work? look out for a longer account on my sister (academic) blog:
But I spoke about Rent fans, and how they were a trailblazing ‘fandom’ for the newer models of fandom we see in theatre today (Subtitle: sorry Hamilton you didn’t invent it) but also about the original Rentheads who grew up and grew with ‘their’ show and how they personally continue to be fans despite having ‘outgrown’ that phase in their lives.

The Theatre Fandom symposium took place at the University of Brisol on 7th July 2017 and was supported by the British Academy.

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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