Thursday, January 12, 2006

Does Size Matter?

The discussion of audience continues in the blogs and comments boxes around the nation. MattJ, over at "Theatre Conversation and Political Frustration," in a post entitled "A New Approach," questions some of my ideas (how DARE he! Upstart!). He writes:

"I completely understand what Scott is saying by continually talking about theatre as the community activity; a community event. And it can be that, yes, and I love his ideas for intense conversations on productions, informed community engagement, etc. But, I still can’t help but feeling that there is a sort of giving up or a relegation of theatre to the sidelines inherent in this approach....[M]y goal here is indeed to thrust forward, but with a different approach. One which doesn’t give up on a potential audience. It feels like an ugly compromise that we don’t necessarily want to make. Keep the integrity, but get the audience, build the audience."

Matt Freeman agrees: "What is so terrifying about broad appeal, or defining who we want to appeal to?" He goes on: "I would insist that there is a general derision of the terms of popularity and mass appeal that are aiding in moving quality theater away from a broad audience.Hence, an increasing cultural insignificance. Which, I'll confess, I view as a problem."

I must confess that I find myself in a peculiar position in this argument. On the one hand, I have long advocated for an art that is able to speak to a larger audience than just theatre artists. In my recent exchange with George Hunka, I advocated for making questions raised by a play understandable to a general audience. On the other hand, I also have advocated for theatre that is a conversation between a small group of people. Is this an example of Negative Capability, the ability to hold two contradictory positions at the same time without reaching for annoying certainty? Do I contradict myself? NO! I am nothing if not consistent -- but I am complex, multifarious!

Let me explain...

1) I think theatre is a local art. By which I mean, it presents a unique performance in a specific place at a particular time to a small number of people (small compared to, say, a mass media). Even if the same play is being performed at different venues around the country, it is a local art because each performance is different (unlike say, a movie where the same, identical experience is offered to the multitude). That is why I agree with Don Hall that comparing theatre to film and TV is dopey.

2) I think theatre should focus on that small number of people -- the people who are in the audience that night. They should seek to communicate with them, to provide a rich experience.

3) I think that rich experience should be seen as a conversation, not as a product to be marketed and sold. Theatre audiences grow most effectively via word of mouth, but if a production has a limited run, word of mouth has only a short amount of time to go into effect. What would be better would be for there to be positive word of mouth about a specific theatre, rather than a specific play. If audience members could tell others about a consistent type of experience that they will have at a theatre, then word of mouth can function long after a specific show has closed. [Before you jump to conclusions: I don't mean consistently doing the same type of play, I mean consistently offering the same kind of experience. This is about the relationship between audience and artist.]

So on the one hand, I don't approve of Foreman's call for an "elitist" theatre, because it seems to be the theatrical equivalent of a secret society with codes known by only the initiated few. On the other, I think that the theatre thrives by having a personal relationship with the audience, which means having smaller audiences.

So I'd prefer to have a small audience in the theatre, and a long line of people wanting to get into the theatre!

But what I want to know from the two Matts, and anyone else who might want to contribute a thought or two, is just how large must an audience be before they think we have not made an "ugly compromise" that has "given up" on our "mass appeal" and "popularity"? Just how many people constitutes success?


MattJ said...

"So I'd prefer to have a small audience in the theatre, and a long line of people wanting to get into the theatre!"

I agree. And since I agree, I worry we are defining "audience" differently. An observation Freeman made a week ago or so (although I would also add longer runs into that mix).

When I say I want a "larger" audience, one which has been built, I do not necessarily mean I want tons of people physically in the theatre all the time in gigantic auditoriums.

The way I think about it, I imagine a larger theatre audience having significant repercussions on artists and theaters. Where there are more professional actors, directors, designers, and playwrights in the country; more regional theatres, and at least one in every city and maybe even town; more educational focus on the theatre, etc.

The result of the larger audience is a support for the form and the creation of it, so that we, and our children, and our's children's children would be able to firmly choose a life in the theatre.

That's one side, the other side is that more people would be experiencing the work. In line with a comment I posted on Freeman's blog when I said we would be "creating an audience for our art." Lots more to say here of course but I'll leave it at that for now... but if we can't get past these ideas we'll never start putting forth a newer approach as I proposed in my post, a focus on new plays...

Freeman said...

There's a great deal of what you've said that is indisputable, Scott. And I think I recognize that we're all slowly moving towards something of a shared view here.

It's simply practical and true that there is no way that a play, given a short run, can have the same audience that even a really bad TV show has on Thursday nights. And it's also true that certain plays communicate more effectively to an intimate audience. Doing certain plays in the middle of Madison Square Garden might be, shall we say, ineffective?

I measure this a successful broadening of the audience as interested young people who are not practioners, but fans. The way that you have crowds of college students who love independent music or go see concerts on their Friday nights? We need to compare theater to's current state. While Broadway is making money, it's going about it by doing more and more that is instantly recognizable to its audience: films, TV, stars of films.

You've noted that instead of one play getting word of mouth, that one theatre should have word of mouth. What I've been suggesting is that you multiply that equation by the entire theatrical world. What if we created word of mouth, of buzz, for theatre as something that you SHOULD be seeing.

Wine has, over the last twenty years, moved to the center of the conciousness of the post-boomer generation. Wine is complex, difficult, expensive. But you can't spit without hitting someone who knows whether or not they like Cabernet or Pinot in NYC, or that ordering White Zin is like throwing up on your date's lap.

How did this happen? Education, word of mouth, a dedicated industry.

This is why I talk so often about Marketing. Not because I want anyone to compromise their work. I don't want everyone to start making White Zinfandel because it seems to sell well. I want the mainstream to get excited about the entire "Wine" industry.

I will now finally put this extended Metaphor to rest. It is exhausted.

MattJ said...

well said Matt. Yes, I think we are, in our own way, moving towards a shared view. The fruits of conversation and collaboration!

George Hunka said...

Well, just to add my two cents here (and to finish talking about Foreman, because I'd like to move on myself), I'll just point out an odd contradiction, Scott, in your post and assert that there is an audience for this so-called "elitist" art. You write:

"So on the one hand, I don't approve of Foreman's call for an 'elitist' theatre, because it seems to be the theatrical equivalent of a secret society with codes known by only the initiated few. On the other, I think that the theatre thrives by having a personal relationship with the audience, which means having smaller audiences.

"So I'd prefer to have a small audience in the theatre, and a long line of people wanting to get into the theatre!"

Although you characterize Foreman's theater as "a secret society known only by the initiated few," those few are perhaps more numerous than you think. The Ontological, every year, lets 100 people into its space for each of its performances, four per week, and can successfully sell out a six-month run: ironically, you've got your small audiences and your long lines for a theater that seems insular to you. Perhaps it's not as insular as we all think. If they went once and never returned, it might be chalked up to mere curiosity, but something in these plays has spoken to these audiences year after year, and they're still quite young: many people in his audience weren't even born when Foreman started his theater. He must be doing something right.

Freeman said...

I really think it's the posters.

Foreman is a brand in NYC.

That had completely escaped me.

I think my point just hit George's tastes smack dab in the middle with the Foreman posters.

Scott Walters said...

Good point, George. I think there is a lot to learn from what Foreman does. First, he produces his own work, so he has artistic control. Second, he produces work regularly -- and if I'm not mistaken, doesn't he occasionally revive old work? Third, he has offers a consistent experience -- if you go to a Foreman production, you know you're not going to get "The Music Man." As a result, he has created a community [ding! ding! ding!] around his theatre that is sufficient to support his work without, I suspect, a whole lot of newspaper and TV ads and mass mailings. To me, that's the ideal. Insular? Not to those in the ocmmunity. To those who arent' in the know, Foreman tends to be a bit baffling. They can be initiated, but they need some space.

P'tit Boo said...

"I don't approve of Foreman's call for an "elitist" theatre, because it seems to be the theatrical equivalent of a secret society with codes known by only the initiated few. "

I think that Foreman is a huge provocateur and his statement is much more layered than the statement itself. I hear a great deal of sarcasm in that statement. And also , I think there is a certain acceptance of the truth in his saying that. He aknowledges that the only way for theatre artists to truly speak their truth and be honest about what they are doing is to accept that most of the time we do preach to the converted. That our audience is often each other ( I mean look at our blog discussions : it's us with us... wouldn't you love to hear some non theatre practitionners or critics chime in here ?) and that until we accept that we can't really free up the work and let it be what it should be.
I don't really hear Foreman being an elitist. I hear him stating the truth about our art form.

My work has stalled in the last few months as I am trying to figure out who I am talking to in my plays and why...

Devilvet said...

Thoughts on Foreman's 100 people every night for weeks and weeks.

1. Foreman has a community of spectators that he has earned after doing theatre for roughly 30 years in NYC. Also he was a darling of the avant garde NY scene who has been written about ad naseum in every theatrical journal worthy of mention.

2. Had Foreman attempted to set himself up in any other city in America, he wouldn't have the same amount of spectators/audience. Even in a progressive college town environment like say, Yale, the lines would shorten very quickly.

My point being that you can't hold up the example of Foreman in NYC and say to other artists in other cities, "see you can suceed at making 'elitist art' and making it work."

Artists like Foreman, Wilson, Lee Breuer, LePage... to say that their level achievement is possible for a theatrical artist is like saying anyone can become president of the US, or anyone can win the lottery. All these guys were either in the right place at the right time (i.e. the 60's) or the are products of better funded artistic nationalities.

Foreman himself has stated that a young artist starting in theater today can't achieve the same sort of following he himself has.

It is not as simple as saying that "he is doing something right."