By Dr Elizabeth Dearnley, Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of English studies, University of London.
In this case study Dr Elizabeth Dearnley (Institute of English Studies) explains how she connected with her intended audience over folktales and music at her event 'Sea Change' as part of Being Human festival 2019. Read on to find out the important role her venue played in attracting attendees and how she managed the tricky situation of knowing how many people will actually show up at a free event!
Can you tell us a little bit about your event?
‘Sea Change’ was an evening of sea-themed folktales and songs in a historic riverside pub, bringing together three people from three different disciplines: Classicist Emma Bridges (Institute of Classical Studies), harpist, composer and sound designer Tamsin Dearnley, and me, a folklorist with a background in immersive arts. Emma shared sections of the Odyssey which described the sirens and the terrifying Scylla and Charybdis, I retold stories of mermaids, selkies and sea monsters from various folklore traditions, and Tamsin accompanied these on the harp, as well as discussing how harps have been used in storytelling over time.
We held our event in an atmospheric upstairs room at The Prospect of Whitby, a sixteenth century pub on the bank of the Thames reputed to have been frequented by sailors, smugglers and other characters from London’s maritime underworld. After our performance, we had informal discussions with the audience about the stories and music, where people could ask questions and share other versions of some of the stories they had just heard.
Who was your intended audience? How did you go about reaching them with your event?
London has a lively and active storytelling community who stage performance nights in similar types of venues, so ‘Sea Change’ was ideally placed to attract audiences who attend these sorts of events. Holding ‘Sea Change’ in the Prospect of Whitby added a further nautical appeal; people were encouraged to stay for a drink and a chat after the event itself had finished, sparking more informal discussions.
Between us, we could reach a wide range of different audiences via our social media channels, including theatre, participatory arts and storytelling communities, harpists and people interested in folk music, and members of online folklore communities. We also encouraged the pub to share details of the evening with their regulars. The event quickly sold out, leaving us wishing that the pub had a larger capacity! But the room we used – which seated around 40 – proved an ideally sized space for the type of event we had planned, allowing for a good-sized group to gather while making it possible for everyone to join in the post-performance discussion.
Did you face any challenges in organising your event and how did you overcome them?
With a free event, one of the trickiest things is not always knowing how many attendees will turn up. We sold out almost immediately, then released a few more tickets nearer the time, which worked out well in the end, but it can sometimes be a bit of a balancing act. I found it helpful to keep in touch with the attendee list, checking in with a reminder a few days before, so that anyone no longer able to attend could pass on their tickets to people on the waiting list.
Juggling putting together an event of this kind alongside our other academic and professional commitments meant that we had to be exceptionally organised in terms of thinking through all the small tasks that needed to be done, whether scheduling in FaceTime rehearsals or ensuring we had sufficient fairy lights to decorate the pub!
Did you find it useful to be part of the Being Human festival?
The festival is a brilliant platform to share and generate ideas, bring academics and non-academics together, and spark conversations about current research. It shows how public engagement is always a two-way street, with everyone exchanging ideas, experiences and new perspectives on the topic at hand. I’ve been involved with several Being Human events over the past few years, and it’s always proved a fantastic experience. It’s such a great way to become part of a national network of researchers exploring unusual ways to share their work, and I’ve learned a lot from talking with other event organisers – both on Twitter and in person – as our events took shape during the build-up to the festival.
Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future event organisers?
Put a lot of thought into choosing your venue – will it create the right atmosphere? Will it connect you with new audiences? Is it accessible? Child-friendly? Easy to get to?
Keep your main idea simple, so that the point of your event is easy to convey – think about one research question that you’re trying to explore.
Think about how your event could tap into wider events which might connect you with new audiences – for instance, could it tie in with a historical anniversary or a significant date?
If you would like to learn more about shaping an event around your audience’s needs please check out our training resources on how to put on a public engagement event.