Case Studies

Failing forwards, The new Mercury way

Working with MERCURY THEATRE, Colchester, ESSEX, UK and The Audience Agency to achieve greater relevance

The Mercury Theatre Colchester is the most active producing theatre in East Anglia, UK. It is rooted in the local community & touches over 130,000 people in Colchester & the surrounding area each year.
The theatre was closed in 2019 for refurbishment, to be reopened in 2020, although the pandemic meant the closure was longer than initially envisaged,
eventually reopening in 2021. This closure period coincided with the Mercury Theatre’s participation in ADESTE+ and provided an ideal opportunity to re-examine several
elements of how it engaged with its audience.
Whilst the Mercury had a large, regular and appreciative audience; it was aware that this did not necessarily "match" the area's population. Its audience was older and not as diverse as it could be. Given the closure and redevelopment of the building, it was an ideal time to re-examine how it related to the population of Colchester, especially focusing on those who were "missing" from the Mercury Theatre"s audience.
After identifying two target audiences the Theatre wanted to work with, they produced Mercury Lates , an experimental season of once-a-week after-hours events in the café/bar hosting local acts like cabaret, jazz, comedy and more, following the prototyping principles see - Step 6 – Prototype
We want to start making the Theatre an attractive offer for younger underrepresented audiences. From the research we did, which was holding online meetings during our Mercury Online Season (during the Pandemic) the first step is to bring people into the building, Into the bar with an attractive offer.

Organisations Involved:

  • Mercury Theatre
  • The Audience Agency


Colchester, ESSEX, UK

Sector / Artform:

Theater, perfoming arts

The ACED Project

Mercury task force selected two examples of personas (a composite sketch of a key segment of your audience).

  1. Aisha: coloured working woman commuting to London
  2. Emma: wife of an ex-military who is on tour in Afghanistan, not knowing the community.

Afterwards, they went going out and researched for them.
They found pretty fast and realised they had problems. Their assumptions were wrong, or they weren’t the target described as imagined.
With the closure of Theatres, they were left with a lot of thinking regarding how to continue to engage our audiences.

After their first Prototyping in December 2019 and felt it was an invaluable tool to use going forward.
They came together as a workforce and looked to embed the lessons from prototyping for this uncertain phase in the theatre’s programming.
When developing Mercury Online, we looked at the same things we were prototyping and took the lessons on board.
How was this embedded?

  • Made a task force to investigate the above questions
  • Shared ideas
  • Made each online offering a prototype – what is the audience problem, what is the solution
  • Implemented debriefs at the end of each session with the team using feedback from participants and as the week progressed, implanted small changes to the program according to what we learnt
  • All about the small changes along the way.

By working together as a task force, listening to audience/participant feedback, and making small changes along the way, we could implement programs that really engage, excite and bring people together during this time.
As a result of this method, we recently implemented
These well-attended programs showed that failing forwards using the prototyping methodology works. It is a new way of thinking and one we will carry into the building,


Rendezvous for arts professionals looking to make contacts, share ideas, brainstorm, collaborate, develop their careers, promote their work and chat with like-minded people about their passion.



An experimental season of once-a-week after-hours events in the café/bar hosting local acts like cabaret, jazz, comedy and more.
A generally younger audience from mid-twenties that also compromise of:
The local artistic community
Underrepresented communities


• Having a task force representing different departments across the theatre brings a new way of thinking and understanding with one another and audience development
• Thorough planning of prototyping and auctioning is working well
• The reactions/feedback of the prototype audience gives us plenty to work with moving forwards
• The ideology of audience development has entered the organisation, both relying on people's ideas and Adeste's methods of prototyping, testing and learning through small changes.

Further Information

Listen to Dilek Latif's reflections on the process, in her view, the ACED blueprint provides a 'comfort blanket' that cultural institutions can lean on that guides the necessary prototyping of new ideas.

“From the first prototype, we learned to make the changes smaller, little changes that are more manageable…, so for the second prototype to provide a better experience we need to have that mindset, that it is a test, everyone was impressed that we never had the concept of the prototype but the learning was coming that things don’t work is not a failure, but it is just an understanding if that makes sense.“

Dilek Latif, Talent Development Producer

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