Applying Neuroscience and Psychology frameworks to Theatre Audiences


Clore Fellow Rish Coupland looks at applied neuroscience frameworks, applying them to theatre audiences against two key factors; Diversity and Inclusion and financial sustainability.

Rishi Coupland is Head of Data Intelligence at the National Theatre, where he leads the newly-formed National Theatre Data Studio. Prior to this, his other roles in the arts
include Head of Audience Strategy (National Theatre), Marketing Services Manager (Southbank Centre), and Creative Producer (Buzz-erk Productions). Rishi's first career was as
a mechanical engineer with companies including British Airways and Kimberly-Clark, in locations across the UK and Europe.

In recent years there has been increasing focus on Theatre (and arts) audiences, driven by two key perspectives. The first is aligned with Diversity and Inclusion. In this perspective, the focus has been on under-represented audiences, by demographic. For publicly-funded theatres this is particularly important as funders have pushed for audiences to match the UK’s population.

The second perspective is one of financial sustainability. With state and local authority spending on arts and culture in decline, Theatres need to make more money from ticket sales. As a result, there has been more focus on analysing audience data form a marketing perspective – market penetration and customer loyalty. In the last twenty years there has also been substantial development of audience databases – both ticketing databases and aggregated databases that track the nation’s arts-going behaviour.

All of this means that there is more focus on ‘who’ is attending theatre (in demographic and loyalty terms) than ‘why’ they are or are not attending.

Applied Neuroscience offers frameworks which have yet to be applied to theatre audiences. Psychology has been used in areas of leisure, and Neuroscience in areas of satisfaction and reward. So, the frameworks may have something to offer in terms of analysing Theatre.

By testing the application of some of the new frameworks, it is hoped that it may be possible to open up a new area of study, which will lead to new academic discoveries, and help policy makers and theatre- makers alike. In particular, Applied Neuroscience may help fill in the following gaps in knowledge

  • Beyond seeing under-represented audiences simply as ‘lacking’ theatre in their lives (the deficit view), it will bring a richer understanding of diverse values and reward frameworks
  • It will help policy-makers understand how Theatre is different (or the same) to other forms of leisure and culture in terms of psychological and neurological effect
  • It will get beyond simple attendance statistics and point towards how, through programming, marketing and investment, theatre-makers can diversify and increase their audiences

Finally, from an academic view, there is a benefit in seeing how learning form the fields of psychology and neuroscience can be applied in a new area. If the arts are important, then do we not owe it to ourselves, to our curiosity, to seek out the latest thinking in other fields, and indeed science to analyse deeply the ways in which the arts are held in the audience’s mind?