Monday 23 May 2011


Nuno Santos (Front-of-House), Cidalina Ramos (Box Office Assistant), Sérgio Joaquim (Lighting Technician), Tiza Gonçalves (Director of Production), Rui Lopes (Sound Technician). Photos: Steve Stoer
These are the faces of some of my colleagues at São Luiz Theatre. Colleagues from various departments (communication, technical, production). Some mix with the public, that sometimes knows them personally, others don´t. But they are all people, these and many others, who work so that the final product gets to our audiences.

These photos were inserted in the 2010-2011 season booklet and leaflet, both available to the public, accompanied by our colleagues´ suggestions in what concerns the season programme and also a few words on what they like best about their work in São Luiz. One can also find them in big posters at the theatre façade. Thus, our institution got a face, or rather many faces. At least, that was our intention: to take the first step into making the abstract, concrete; the unknown, known; the impersonal, personal, that is, the institutional, human. We looked for a way to present to the public another dimension of what is involved in the presentation of a performance, the one we talk about the least. The only indicator we have got in order to evaluate this idea are the positive comments of friends and acquaintances, but, most of all, those of members of the audience who, when getting at the box office to buy their tickets, recognized our colleague whose photo was in the booklet.  - when I get to this point, I always think that we should have organized a focus group and tried to get qualitative feedback from some members of the public; but it seems there are always other priorities. Audience studies should be one of them.

The fact is that cultural institutions in general aim to communicate the object (the exhibition or the performance) and the artists who created or interpret it. In the meantime, there is another side, that of the people who work in the theatre or the museum or the cultural institution, which, in my opinion, should be more ‘explored’ in the relationship with the public. Because it´s through them, and thanks to them, that we manage to create a permanent, lasting relationship. And it´s important that this relationship has got a face, becomes personal and concrete.

Risto Nieminen, Director of Music of the Gulbenkian Foundation, during the presentation of the season programme to the public in 2010. (Photo: Márcia Lessa)
I thought that the initiative of the director of music of the Gulbenkian Foundation, Risto Nieminen, to book an encounter with the public last year in order to present the season programme, and through it his vision about the path this service was to follow under his direction, was a marvellous idea. I didn´t manage to go, but I know it ‘sold out’. And I imagine how gratifying it must have been for the people there to get to know the new director – his face, his voice -, to know directly from him what he had chosen to present to them and why. In other words, the kind of relationship an institution normally has, and greatly values, with the media (which then spread the word out to the public), was here created with the public itself. I am curious to know if there were other moments of encounter between Risto Nieminen and the public, if that initial initiative was taken further. And, most of all, I am curious to know if the new director met, at the Foundation or in a different venue, with those audiences he said he would have liked them to attend his programming. How was this encounter? And how is this relationship going?

The presence of a director, the person who manages the team and makes the choices, is something fascinating for many people who visit cultural institutions. These are, unfortunately, rare encounters, sometimes truly gratifying, but also fundamental in the building of bridges. They are, among other things, a way of letting people know how important they are for our institution, or rather for the people working in it. In some occasions, very few, I was testimony to the encounter of museum directors with the public in the exhibitions, the informal conversation - as if they were friends -, the joy in the faces of those people for this unexpected encounter, I dare say the privilege this encounter seemed to be for them. When I was recently searching the web to prepare a class, I came across some photos of the director of the finnish science centre Heureka, Per-Edvin Persson – whom I met many years ago, when I was working in this field – with members of the public: in the first case, with the center´s volunteers that were completing 10 years in the service; in the second, with visitor nr. 6.000.000. Brief encounters that can make all the difference in a relationship.

Photo: Saila Puranen/Heureka
Nevertheless, and going back to the beginning, our institutions are not made only of artists or directors. The truth is that there are many more people, who work in different areas, who may equally fascinate the public and contribute in the creation of a different relationship, more personal, of greater knowledge and understanding. Various times, when the public applauds at the end of a performance, the interpreters thank the lighting and sound technicians, pointing to their direction and applauding. And I have wondered, various times, how many members of the audience might understand the meaning of this gesture, to whom it is directed and why.

Rarely do we promote encounters between our audiences and the people working in our institutions. But whenever I was testimony to such an encounter – usually taking place when a member of staff shows a friend or relative around – I can guarantee to you that I felt the same fascination, the same feeling of being ‘privileged’ as when in the presence of an artist or director. It´s something special, different. It´s a way of making a person feel part of the place, because one gets to know what happens behind the scenes, how it´s done and by whom. This is a relationship. Not between a building and the public, but between the people working in it and the people who come to it or might become interested in coming.

Many thanks to Elisabete Caramelo and Mikko Myllykoski for their help with the photos.

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