A digital adaptation of Liz Lerman's
Critical Response Process

Archive: Sep 2014

  1. Enhancing audience empathy through technology

    Leave a Comment

    In the past few weeks I have spontaneously encountered several posts, blogs and articles that have focussed, in their own way, and often without explicitly aiming to, on the significance of empathy in shaping and enhancing the audience experience. The first was an article about the importance of encouraging boys to read more in order to develop their empathetic skills by identifying with fictional characters. The rationale, in a nutshell, was that children, and in particular boys, are not only playing less regularly with other children (and thereby missing out on playing out different roles and empathising with a diverse range of characters), but that they are also reading less. The cumulative effect of this shift in how children spend their leisure time, it was argued, is that children are becoming less and less empathetic. A counter-argument to this is the view I encountered in a blog post which claimed that the wonderful world of video gaming is actually enhancing young people’s empathetic skills and awareness.

    Figure 3.2 - Captivated audience


    It’s been hard in the past few weeks to escape from both pundit and professional reviews of Kate Bush’s long awaited return to live performance. A recent post on her fan page provided a particularly intimate account of the gig. It was written by a fan who had been lucky enough to secure a front row seat. The fan described in some visceral detail the unforgettable experience of hearing Kate breathe, of seeing her sip water in the wings and even of hearing her panting between the songs. As someone who has been accidentally spat on by Jodhi May while absorbed in her performance as Una in David Harrower’s Blackbird from a front row seat at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre, I readily identified with this privileged proximity, which affords a rare insight into the physical processes involved in artistry-in-action.


    In this bright new age of live streaming and digital archiving, it could well be argued that technology is somehow democratising the kind of empathy facilitated through close proximity. A recent Nesta report found that audiences who watched a National Theatre live streamed performance reported higher levels of emotional engagement than audiences who saw the same performances live. Having recently watched a few RSC performances live-streamed from Stratford-on-Avon to Leeds, I can readily identify with the emotional benefits provided by the close-ups, not just of actors but of captivated audience members too, and I enjoy the sense of vicarious buzz generated by live recordings of the auditorium before and during a performance.


    As an audience researcher, I have often been struck by theatre-goers’ fascination with actors. My conversations with audience members have taught me that many theatre-goers are motivated to attend performances to develop their world views by being encouraged to empathise with stage characters and put themselves in their shoes. At the extreme end of the audience engagement spectrum, some audience members have told me about going on “pilgrimages” to the West End and Broadway to see famous actors on stage, hopefully catch a glimpse of them at stage door afterwards, and ideally even engage them in conversation and collect their autographs for posterity.


    Matthew Reason’s work with dance audiences illustrates how many audience members engage in processes of “emotional and kinaesthetic empathy”, which lead them to “invest sympathy” in characters and experience performances “with their whole bodies”.[1] Another audience researcher, Stephanie Pitts, has conducted some fascinating research into empathy by engaging with audiences of a chamber music festival at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. Stephanie’s work uncovers the positive impact created through empathetic engagement – for example with musicians who stand up before a performance to introduce one of their favourite pieces of music.[2]

    The qualitative studies of audience researchers like Matthew, Stephanie and myself are complemented by some seminal quantitative studies, which also provide strong indications of the powerful role of empathy in delivering a positive audience response. One such study by Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak[3] demonstrated that the emotional resonance of a performance was strongly dependent on empathy and highly correlated with spiritual value. Surveys with American audiences clearly revealed empathy to be a strong indicator of intrinsic impact, with empathy helping audiences to recall performances they had enjoyed up to 40 years earlier.

    I am currently working with Yorkshire Dance and Breakfast Creatives to explore to what extent (if at all) technology might be able to deepen and/or enhance audiences’ empathy with dance artists. Over the past year, we have been developing a new, responsive online platform that is heavily inspired by Liz Lerman’s renowned Creative Response Process. The aim of the platform is to use technology to bring new and existing dance audiences into closer proximity with dance artists by sharing film clips of their works-in-progress and inviting regular feedback; and by facilitating live chat sessions, which might explore the signs, symbols, inspirations and meanings behind the developing pieces. One underlying objective of this is to explore whether a prolonged and multifaceted exposure to artists can increase audiences’ empathy, which in turn might break down some of the traditional barriers to engagement with contemporary dance (e.g. perceived inaccessibility) and enhance the existing experience for more regular attenders. Only time will tell… and we’re finally getting very close to finding out, with our public launch taking place on 17th September. Watch this space!


    Dr Ben Walmsley, Lecturer in Creativity & Collaboration

    School of Performance and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds

    [1] Reason, M. 2010. Asking the audience: audience research and the experience of theatre. About Performance, Issue 10, p.19.
    [2] Pitts, S.E. 2005. What makes an audience? Investigating the roles and experiences of listeners at a chamber music festival. Music and Letters, Vol. 86, no. 2, pp. 257-269

    [3] Brown, A.S. and Novak, J.L. 2007. Assessing the intrinsic impacts of a live performance. WolfBrown, San Francisco.


  2. Behind the scenes of the digital platform respond_

    Leave a Comment


    Two weeks to go now until the launch of respond_ and we are certainly keeping busy!

    The team at Breakfast have been building, testing and reviewing the new online platform respond_ ready to launch on 17th September. To make this possible we have been working very closely with the project team and, in particular, the artists involved and Liz Lerman, the original co-author and founder of the Creative Response Process (CRP).

    But before giving a brief update on some of the questions we have been looking at and the CRP platform itself a big thank you to the 357 of you who have looked at how to get involved and the 30 who have signed up to be involved in the directly with the test research group for the CRP. We are really looking forward to talking to you more in the next couple of weeks. For anyone who would like more information about signing up to be part of the CRP click here.


    What is respond_
    An online platform to help develop the creation of a new work and to help inform and develop positive critical enquiry – in this case with contemporary dance.

    Our Challenge
    The Critical Response process normally takes place within a workshop environment and is made up of:
    You – the participants
    The artist / creator
    A facilitator – in the case of respond_ the website

    Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 15.55.48

    Our job is to create this environment online and introduce new possibilities and extend learnings for all those involved.

    To use one of Liz Lerman’s analogies ‘as easy as making a piece of cake?’ Well, almost; the logic is pretty much the same but it’s proving to be a pretty big cake!



    The big questions

    What might we lose or gain by being online?

    Within a workshop environment we understand that participants are informed by many factors besides just a series of spoken q&a’s. Factors such as body language, eye contact, emphasis on sound, movement and expression, all of which clearly enhance communication and the shared live experience learning process.

    However, a live group workshop can also have its limitations. For example, the restrictions of time, the number of people that can be involved, how far the people involved are comfortable with speaking in a group and how confident they are to formulate a response, question or observation.

    And the big one. How can an online platform act as or take on the role of a facilitator?
    With 20 years of experience and ongoing learning gained from the CRP the facilitator’s role is key to the process and requires a number of skills and well honed subtleties:
    – Empathy for all involved
    – Understanding the artist’s aims in terms of developing the new work
    – listening and encouraging
    – clarity of direction
    – stimulating
    – astute quick and effective guidance.


    From the beginning of this project, last autumn, we have been excited about introducing a framework where an online platform can develop organically based on the shared knowledge and input from its users. In other words we are looking at building a framework where each user’s comment, response and/or question entered online can automatically help inform the next user by offering prompts and stimulating users to develop their own skills and depth of positive critical enquiry. To begin with we will be working closely with wordsmiths, dance professionals and the respond_ team at Yorkshire Dance and Leeds University to help enter and encourage debate and entries/ shared knowledge into the online platform during the first round of CRP -between 19th – 26th September. We will then stand back and see how much the platform can take on the role of the facilitator in CRP 2 – between 14th – 21st October.


    One other area we are looking into is what do we do with all this information? Maybe a subject for our next post where we can talk more about how we are going to feedback the results of each project to you the users/ participants of respond_, the artists involved Hagit Yakira and Robbie Synge and the arts organisation hosting this project, Yorkshire Dance. If you would like to learn more about this or have any thoughts about any of this article please do get in touch – we would be more than happy to talk more.

    Plenty for us to keep working on!


    Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 15.57.04

    An early design introducing step 1 of the Critical Response Process (Please note certain elements might change before we launch)



    Co-creation and collaboration
    One of the greatest highlights of this project has been to meet and learn from all those involved. A huge thank you to Robbie for all his great input and to Liz Lerman and John Borstel (authors of CRP) for their un-ending support, collected knowledge and advice to respond_ . We look forward to talking more with Hagit very soon and all the respond_ users.



    Thanks for taking the time to read this post. We look forward to talking more very soon. Please note a date to add to your diaries: 17th September

    Best wishes from all the team at Breakfast and respond_

    Kind regards
    Nick Ellwood/ Breakfast


    Date to remember the launch of respond_ 17th September