Understanding Live Audiences

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Featured Image: © Thomas Rowlandson - An Audience at Drury Lane Theatre (ca 1785).

Thomas Rowlandson – An Audience at Drury Lane Theatre (ca 1785)

What distinguishes live performances?

Audiences and performers alike talk of a unique ‘buzz’ and ‘crackle’ created by successful live performance. Live drama, live music, live dance, live comedy seem to deliver a quality of experience that is not fully reproduced in their recorded, streamed or projected forms.

This symposium will explore different methods for analysing, measuring and understanding the live experience, ranging from large scale automatic sensing of audience responses to the fine-grained moments of interaction between audiences, between audiences and performers and between performers.

Supported by the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods (https://www.ncrm.ac.uk) through an IVES Fellowship.


Prof. Pat Healey, Queen Mary, University of London. “Sensing Audience Engagement”

Prof. Michael Schober, The New School, New York. “Do Audiences and Performers Agree on What Happened?”

Dr Penelope Woods, Queen Mary, University of London. “Many Audiences for Hamlet: Australia, New Zealand & the Pacific Isles, May-June 2015”

Prof. Christian Heath, Kings College London. “Audience Participation, Impression Management and the Legitimacy of Transactions”


  • 12:30 pm – 1:00 pm     Welcome and Registration
  • 1:00 pm – 1:45 pm        Prof. Pat Healey
  • 1:45 pm – 2:30 pm        Prof Christian Heath.
  • 2:30 pm – 3:00 pm       Coffee
  • 3:00 pm – 3:45 pm       Dr Penelope Woods.
  • 3:45 pm – 4:30 pm       Prof. Michael Schober.
  • 4:30 pm – 5:00 pm       Discussion and Close.


This is a free admission event. Please register here.

Abstracts and Speaker Profiles

Prof. Michael Schober: “Do Audiences and Performers Agree on What Happened?”

Abstract: To what extent do collaborating musicians understand what just happened in their live duo performance in the same way as each other? And to what extent do audience members understand the performance in the same way as the performers? A series of recent studies, using new methods to assess shared understanding, suggests that collaborating performers in different genres—improvisers on a jazz standard, free jazz improvisers, and classical chamber musicians—do not fully agree with their partner’s independent characterizations of what occurred, music-analytically, collaboratively or evaluatively. In each case, they can agree with a commenting listener’s characterizations at least as much or even more than they agree with their partner’s.  Audience members’ understanding can also diverge from performers’ substantially. In a study of 239 musically experienced listeners to jazz standard improvisations, far fewer listeners agreed with the performers’ judgements than with a commenting listener’s judgements. This evidence suggests that fully shared understanding may not be necessary for improvising together well; disparities of understanding may even make for better collaborative music-making.

About the Speaker: Michael Schober (PhD, Stanford University; ScB, Brown University) is Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research, New York City, and Vice Provost for Research at the New School. His research examines shared understanding (or misunderstanding) and coordinated action, in studies that focus on everyday conversations, standardized interviews, and musical performances and improvisations. Along with his co-editor on the Wiley volume Envisioning the Survey Interview of the Future, Frederick Conrad, he has been awarded the Warren J. Mitofsky Innovators Award from the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

Professor Pat Healey: “Sensing Audience Engagement”

Abstract: A variety of quantitative approaches to measuring audience engagement have been tried, amongst others: EEG, fMRI, GSR, heart rate, facial expressions, body movement, eye movements, and self-rated engagement. We propose that these measures of audience engagement can only be fully understood by distinguishing between two different basic response processes: cognitive engagement and social display.  Our basic hypothesis is that the fundamental marker of cognitive engagement in an audience is stillness; blank expressions, motionless bodies. We present evidence from social science and studies of live performance which suggest that stillness is a basic signal of audience engagement. However, obvious counter-examples are easy to find: chanting at football matches, dancing at concerts, laughing at stand-up comedy. We propose that these animated responses reflect the operation of a second process of social display that is typically marked by motion.  Live performances are a form of social encounter and in this context people work to make their responses visible to, and interpretable by, the others around them (cf. ‘audience design’ in Clark and Murphy, 1982).  The evidence for this social display process is found in everyday social encounters and the pragmatics of performer-audience and audience-audience communication. We argue that by attending to the distinction between cognitive engagement and social display we can disambiguate measures of audience response and identify productive new ways of understanding audience engagement.

About the Speaker: Pat Healey is Professor of Human interaction and leader of the Cognitive Science Research Group in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at QMUL. He is also currently holds a position as Senior Researcher in Residence at the Digital Catapult. His research focuses on the potential of digital technologies to create richer, more expressive forms of human communication. His recent work has focussed on the social dynamics of audience responses in street performance, stand-up comedy and contemporary dance.

Dr. Penelope Woods: “Many Audiences for Hamlet: Australia, New Zealand & the Pacific Isles, May-June 2015”

Abstract: Between 2014 and 2016, as part of the events commemorating the 450th and 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s life and death, Shakespeare’s Globe toured a production of Hamlet to almost every country in the world. No theatre tour had attempted such a project before and the Globe-to-Globe Hamlet World Tour represents an extraordinary feat of logistics, human labour and cost. Penelope Woods accompanied the tour to eighteen countries investigating the different conditions and conventions of reception, the different meanings made by audiences out of the performance and the different resource of emotion, reflection and community sought by the audience in it. In order to evaluate this, a compilation of field data including surveys and interviews with audience members, social media data, and observational data of laughter, coughing, applause and ovations is presented and considered.

This paper rebuilds a “score” of audience response in three different venues in Oceania, to compare and contrast these very different responses to the same production. It reflects on the particular logistical and methodological challenges of international audience research and presents some arguments about subjective and qualitative data. Finally, it considers what to do with audience data and its the insights it affords. Where might this, and where should this, take researchers, theatre practitioners, marketing departments and policy makers?

About the Speaker: Penelope Woods is a Lecturer in the Drama Department at Queen Mary, University of London. She accompanied the Globe to Globe worldwide tour of Hamlet as an audience researcher with the Globe Research Audiences project in 2015 and 2016 as part of a Postdoctoral Fellowship with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotion, and as a visiting fellow at the University of Sydney. With Dr Malcolm Cocks, Woods is working on a book length study of the tour, Guilty Creatures: the international audiences of the Globe to Globe Hamlet. She has published research on the ‘skill’ of spectatorship, both early modern and current, the ‘intimacy’ of the audience experience, audience emotions and facial expressions, diasporic audiences, rehearsal practices and ethnographic work with theatre companies in journals and book collections including Shakespeare StudiesShakespeare Bulletin and African Theatre, and with Cambridge University Press, Bloomsbury and Ashgate.

Professor Christian Heath: “Audience Participation, Impression Management and the Legitimacy of Transactions”

Abstract: In a pioneering series of essays, Hibbitts (1992) discusses the idea of performative cultures and draws attention to the importance of public ceremonies and rituals in establishing agreements and contracts in preliterate societies. He suggests that the presence and participation of an audience is critical in this regard, serving to secure the legitimacy of agreements and contracts. In contemporary society, contracts are largely established through documentation, yet there remain examples where the presence of an audience remains critical to the legitimacy of formal agreements. In the paper, we address auctions and explore the ways in which valuation and exchange of goods is secured through the presence and participation of an audience. We consider the ways in which auctioneers render visible, transparent, the process and participation of bidding and enable the audience to seemingly witness and thereby legitimise transactions. In addressing the interaction that arises within the auction, we touch on matters of impression management and how the audience can be encouraged to warrant transactions that do not necessarily involve the forms of open competition believed to be characteristic of the auction process. The paper will include the presentation of videorecordings of auctions of fine art and antiques.

About the Speaker: Christian Heath is Professor at King’s College London and leads the Work, Interaction and Technology research group. He specialises in fine grained, video-based studies of social interaction and is currently undertaking research in settings that include operating theatres, control centres, and museums and galleries. He is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences (AcSS) and was recently given the EUSSET-IISI Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding contribution to the fields of Computing and Informatics. His publications include: The Dynamics of Auction (Cambridge: ISCA Best Book Award), Video and Qualitative Research (Sage) and Technology in Action (Cambridge).


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