Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Helping the Audience to Appreciate Our Work

In the October issue of American Theatre, Jeffrey Jones contributes an intriguing article mischievously entitled Thinking About Writing About Thinking About New Plays: Or, How the Visual Arts Audiences Got Comfortable with Radical Innovation, While Theatre Audiences Didn’t. Jones worries about “how off-putting it would be if the theatre just kept presenting the same kind of plays based on the same small set of templates – year in, year out, same as it ever was…” And he wonders, “How can anyone ever get an audience to accept and enjoy new and difficult work?”

Initially, I was impatient with the premise that there was somehow something wrong with the audience because they didn’t get jazzed about plays that are “weird, unpleasant, irritating, aggressive, manipulative and…a theatre of absence and withholding, rather than presentation and presence.” Just what, I wondered, is the intrinsic benefit of “difficulty” (read: obscurity to the point of opaqueness)? Isn’t daily life incomprehensible enough? Instead of adding to the irritating, manipulative aggressiveness of the world, wouldn’t art do better to try to seek clarity, and describe some meaning, some beauty, some pattern to our existence?

But as I continued to read, I was surprised to find that this was not going to be another rant about misunderstood artists dismissed by lowbrow theatergoers. Rather, Jones’ gaze turns to the theatre’s seeming disinterest in engaging the audience in dialogue.

The model he asks us to consider to solve the question “How can anyone ever get an audience to accept and enjoy new and difficult work?” is that of the visual arts, where during the rise of Modernism patrons were taught a “handful of terms and concepts…with which to discuss the work.” As a result of acquiring this vocabulary, the now-educated patrons “are suddenly and magically able to discuss and understand I[the difficult work of art] – and, lo, the scales fall from their eyes and they see…” The vehicle for this revelation is the gallery’s 50-page catalog whose “actual purpose…is to provide an essay that places the work-at-hand in the context of that shared set of core terms and concepts.”

“Theatre,” he goes on, “has spent almost no effort or energy in defining, let alone disseminating, a core set of terms and concepts by which new plays might be discussed an understood.” And you know, I think he’s right. And what a refreshing viewpoint!

Instead of pointing a frustrated finger at the theatre audience, Jones asks us to look at ourselves and what we are doing to help the spectator to become more like the people we’d love to play to. Such an approach respects the intelligence of the audience, and turns the theatre into a place where a collaboration between artwork and spectator can take place.

I must confess that I have always, even recently, had the attitude that a production should speak for itself. If I have to tell an audience what it is supposed to see – through a director’s note in the program, say – then I haven’t really done my job. If the audience doesn’t notice the connection between my production of Marisol and the events in New Orleans, then who am I to tell them directly about this. If they’re not acquainted with the idea of “magical realism,” which informs Rivera’s aesthetic, and they can’t quite grasp the way the story is being told, then I have failed as an artist. An audience shouldn’t need any help to understand a production. Or so I opined.

But Jones’ article forces me to question my attitude. He tells a story about the remounting of the Wooster Group’s Rumstick Road at the American Place Theatre in New York, which was consistently being greeted with audience bafflement and a steady stream of early departures. But at one Wednesday matinee he attended, he was surprised to find “a crowd of fashionable middle-aged ladies not only sitting through the thing but paying attention and obviously having a grand time.” It turned out that they were a theatre group from Westchester whose leader on the bus trip into town had contextualized what they were going to see, and this gave them a way to enjoy the show that might have otherwise remained obscure and opaque. Brilliant!

Jones suggests we adopt three tools and techniques of the visual arts:

1. Theatre must accept that the presentation of new plays is Smart Fun, and be prepared to promote it accordingly.

2. The enterprise is not the work itself; the enterprise is creating the context for the work,

3. Therefore…the context specifically must be, and be known to be, about providing ways to read and understand and discuss the work.

He proposes that theatre commission “critical essays by smart, literate thinkers” and that those essays be published in the program, if not mailed to playgoers beforehand. “Is there any reason why major regional theatres can’t engage leading critics, essayists, novelists, poets, and playwrights for such a project?”

Is there any reason indeed? I love the concept, but wonder about the mode of delivery – I can hear managing directors all over America blanching at the thought of the printing costs for this expanded program. Might this be a wonderful way for theatres to use their websites, which right now seem to exist almost solely as a means of advertising? Create a webpage for each production with an essay such as Jones describes, as well as other dramaturgical material meant to help audiences planning to attend the play. And what about podcasts? If we want to reach young people, might we do so with some intelligent discussions by the artists in the plays, or recordings of someone reading the essay aloud. What if we provided these to patrons in the lobby of the theatre, so they could listen to the essay before the start of the show? What if, instead of post-performance talk backs, we had pre-performance “talk to’s” during which we gave the audience concepts and tools for greater appreciation? This wouldn’t have to be done in the theatre – it could be done at an area restaurant over dinner! And I'm not talking about gossipy chats, I'm talking real content.

Wouldn’t we be doing our audiences a favor if we actually wanted to communicate with them, and give them better tools for truly enjoying our productions? Why keep them in the dark?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC has adopted a format similar to the one you describe. My parents have season membership to the theatre, and they are the only theatre that I make a real effort to attend anymore. They generally do the following things:

1. A few months before a show they send out a glossy magazine called "Asides" which has essays written by the Dramaturg, prominent critics, the director, and the scenic and costume designers. Essays included topics such has the historical context of the play, the playwright's bio, the production history of the play, and each crew member talking about their process and production concept (in the early stages).The designers include their early sketches and other renderings. The director encloses his thought process as he tries to settle on his final concept.

For instance, Michael Kahn is currently directing the Shakespeare Theatre's production of 'Othello,"starring Avery Brooks. In his essay, Kahn talks about his past experiences with the play and how they inform his choices in the current production.

2. The Cast and Crew Meet and Greet. Before the first "Official rehearsal. season members are invited to the theatre to meet the entire production team and cast. At this session, the director and designers all speak about the play and unveil their final concept to the audience. Thus, the audience is allowed to more fully understand the evolution of their approach. Then, the audience is allowed to stay for the first table read through. I have been to one of these, and they sometimes attract up to 200 people. Afterwards, the actors speak about their roles and then everyone fields questions from the audience.

3. During the rehearsal process, the theatre holds lectures for the general public about the play from other local scholars. For instance, I saw a production of Lady Windermere's Fan last season, and the week before the show opened they had lectures scheduled from local history and literature professors at Georgetown and George Washington.

3. After the play opens, the theatre designates several post-mortems where the audience is invited to air their thoughts and engage in discussion with the production personnel and actors.

The result of all of this work is a much more educated and engaged audience. The audience is able to see first hand the whole arc of the play, from the conception to closing night. When I saw Lady Windermere's Fan, Michael Kahn went out of his way to talk to as many audience members as possible and hear their thoughts about the show.

This might not be a bad strategy for other theatre companies to consider.