Monday, December 05, 2005

Helping the Audience, Part 2

Back on October 5th, I wrote and admiring post, "Helping the Audience to Appreciate Our Work", about Jeffrey Jones' essay in American Theatre 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. I wrote: "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 [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!"

This month in American Theatre there is a letter from Benjamin Lloyd skewering Jones' essay. "Like many other highbrow artists," Lloyd writes, "Mr. Jones bangs his spoon loudly and complains that no one likes the theatre he likes....But then he proceeds to the odious position that it's because we are all too stupid to get the theatre he likes, and need thick, jargon-laden programs written by more theatratti to explain it to us. Obnoxious!" He goes on "When I feel like no one likes the theatre I like, I try to find out how to make what I like likable to my audience." And he concludes: "Those of us who create theatre that needs explaining are doomed to irrelevancy."

I sympathize with Mr. Lloyd, and in fact my gut response to Jones' essay had a similar flavor. As someone who directs, I had always been loath to provide even a "Note from the Director" for the program under the notion that if I'd done my job well, the audience should be able to "get" what is there without my help. I tended to agree with Lloyd: "It is not my job to lecture my audience..."

But what Mr. Jones suggests is that, especially with new work that stretches conventions, the artists provide the audience with the tools to more fully understand and appreciate what they are seeing -- in short, to help them enjoy themselves more. Why is this objectionable? When you buy most products, they come with an instruction manual so that you know how to use it. A trip to the computer section of the local bookstore reveals extremely long volumes about how to use Microsoft Word, or Windows, or Excel. Are these books insults to the public's intelligence? Should they be left to their own devices, clicking their way around in some sort of software version of the game "Myst"? Or rather, aren't they books that help me to uncover all the power in the program, and to fully utilize what is there?

Theatre is not easy. It goes by quickly, and you can't rewatch the pieces that you didn't get the first time. Why is it an insult to the audience to give them some guideposts, maybe even a little map, to help them navigate the trip, especially when the terrain is challenging and unfamiliar? If we don't do so, audiences will be confused, and rarely does confusion by itself lead to revelation (I'm putting aside those pieces in which confusion is the ultimate goal). It isn't that audiences can't appreciate new approaches, but rather that they need help reorienting themselves in the theatrical landscape. In fact, by providing audiences with a few tools, the artist is actually doing what Lloyd thinks should be done, trying "to figure out how to make what I like likable to my audience." Mastery of the new is enjoyable, no matter how conservative the audience!

As anyone who has been reading this blog knows, I object to artists having a hostile attitude toward the audience, but that doesn't mean simply giving them whatever they are used to, or even "meet[ing] them halfway" as Mr Lloyd suggests. I think artists should often be trying new things (or making old things new again), and stretching the form, and venturing into new areas. To not do so leads to a moribund art form. We send scouts ahead to describe the path and what to expect as we go along it, not to leave us behind in the dust. When an artist tries something uncoventional, it seems friendly, not "obnoxious," to shine a light along the new path.

In this case, I think Mr Lloyd missed the boat.

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