Sunday, January 15, 2006

Moving On...Sort Of

Over at "An Angry White Guy in Chicago" (I gotta update my blogroll and get this guy on it), Don Hall, in his post "Dust Bunnies From My Medulla Oblongata" takes to task fellow-blogger "The Angry Vet" for characterizing our discussion of the audience as follows:

Ever since I had to leave college behind for the "real world" I've been hearing these sorts of conversations which end up sounding like self therapy. It always breaks down into the following paradigms1) No one likes what I do, why? 2) No one likes what I do, fuck em! 3) What do people like? Do I want to change to please them?

In a comment, the Devil Vet writes: "where are the epiphanies that lead to more audience?...I'm frustrated with the conversations about audiences because I don't see the profit."

Initially, Don attacks the Devil Vet for mischaracterizing the conversation, but the challenge inspires him to write a marvelous post:

I believe the epiphanies will come from the conversations. Fremo has brought up the pursuit of the 90% of the American population that are not theater goers as a start. Stephanie hits upon the idea that the 'real" audience is out there, just not in urban areas. You wrote in comment to Matt Freeman that the idea of 'branding' is not, in and of itself, the answer.

My belief? Right now we don't have a national theater identity. We operate, both in large and small houses, under the existing paradigms that have existed since vaudeville. We hold the conventions of the theater business model as sacrosanct. I don't thnk there is anything wrong or broken with the processes that playwrights and directors utilize - I think the system of presentation is outdated and needs to be shed.

In other words, it isn't the stories being told or even how they are being told that is the disease affecting American theater - it is the method of presentation. The money doesn't come our way because we have a diminishing audience base.

If we, as American Theater Artists, can shift the model of "The Show" to include bold new ways of hosting the event, we may have a chance at reaching a wider audience.

Ultimately, while discussions about the audience can become circular and tedious, these discussions are essential to have. I don't believe we are discussing COMMERCE but ACCESS."

And he concludes: So - what do YOU wanna talk about?
Before I reprint how The Devil Vet responds (so stay tuned), let me respond to both his thoughts and Don's. There are times, I admit, that we seem to be rehashing rather hackneyed ideas and complaints. And sometimes we do end up talking about how to increase the size of our audience. But much of the time, we are discussing not how to get more people, but what our relationship with those people should/could be.

Like so much of modern society, I see such a polarization between the commercial theatre (typified by Broadway) and the Indie theatre (typified by, say, Richard Foreman). Much earlier in the life of this blog, someone described commercial theatre as providing a "lap dance" for its audience; I have frequently characterized the Indie theatre (as it begins with Ibsen) as having a hostile attitude toward the audience. What puzzles me is why most of us can only conceive these two poles, and nothing in between.

As Don says, the problem may be an antiquated "method of presentation," which I interpret to mean "means of production" (to borrow from Marx). The last real change in the approach to production was the 19th-century change from the permanent company doing shows in rotating rep to the star system doing long runs. Even when we only run a show for four performances, it is still produced using the latter system: a cast pulled together for that one particular show, and running as long as the audience will hold out. This system is locked in place by unions and organizations that view theatre not as an art but as a product, and the theatre artists as laborers. Despite a variety of concessions designed to encourage small theatres and production, the union approach ignores the fact that the creation of a piece of theatre is not the same as the creation of an automobile. The rigidity hamstrings alternate forms of production and creativity, while at the same time not providing a livable wage for its members. As The King of Siam used to say, "It's a puzzlement."

That said, I don't think I agree with Don that there is no problem with the stories that are being told, or the way those stories are being told. I agree that there is a high degree of proficiency out there -- rarely do I go to a professional production that does not display a high level of competence. But at the same time, rarely do I go to a professional production that seems to have something important to say about the way we live today. Because of the economics of production, many playwrights end up writing miniatures -- two- and three-handers about tiny personal conflicts that don't resonate much. Take a play like Proof, for instance. I saw it on Broadway, and all during the play I was quite interested -- the acting was excellent, the direction was seamless, the set was fantastic. I even had an interesting discussion with my wife about the "whys" of the play: why did she do X, why did he do Y. But I'm not certain, when all is said and done, what the play is really about beyond another example of how efficient and effective the 19th-century well-made play structure is.

Anyway, rising to Don's challenge, The Devil Vet responds:

I want to talk about what sort of scripts the writers write. I want to talk to directors about style and craftsmanship, I want to know what is it that you like to see when you go out to the theatre.

I want to be inspired by artists being creative, because (personally mind you) I'm exhausted hearing about how to build audiences, how to reach people who don't need, want or care for the art anyway.

I want stories, I want verbs. I want to remember joy!!! Remember joy!

I want to know about what happens during the rehearsals and during the production meetings...not what is happening during the board meetings or the publicity meetings.

As I said on the phone, maybe the sad frightening thing we need to acknowledge is that when it comes to what motivates non-theatre goers into the theatre...well maybe it isn't up to us.

Why hasn't someone suggested the possibility that Americans know what it is the we are doing and many of them have simply decided to pass?

To my mind, the sad true of the matter is that those people who want to be in the audience (especially in major metropolitan areas) already are. There is no magic brand, magic marketing scheme, or theoretical formula that gets people into the theatre that dont want to be there.

I know this sounds defeatist, but to my mind maybe I can lose the battle, but in the end win the war.

I'll make art within my means, within my resources (the actual audience being part of that resource).

OK, you got me talking. Hope you're happy!

I don't know about Don, but I'm happy. I think we could feast on this post here in theatre-blog-land for quite some time!


Devilvet said...

The thing that I was trying to get to (and may have takend the long way to get there) Is that talking about audience, your relationships to them, etc. doesn't tell me what you create. It only tells me you want a better audience. Better meaning "more" in some way

1) More of them
2) More money in pocket from them
3) More understanding, more openness to my vision and voice.

My fear, my bain is that I wish we could share with each other what we actually do othe stage or within the empty space.

But, maybe that isnt something we want to share with each other on this forum? I dont know.

Maybe we reach into the ether only out of need and as a result we come back to the need for more resource and then we also come back to the audience.

A chicken and egg sort of paradigm.

Scott Walters said...

Like you, I have never been much interested in kvetching about the audience. I tend to subscribe to Stephen Covey's law of proactivity: work within your circle of influence. In other words, expend energy on things that you can affect. That's why my focus here has often been on the artist's attitude toward the audience, and his relationship with the audience.

Nevertheless, the things you want to talk about are equally important, and I applaud you statement concerning this. I think George Hunka over at Superfluities shares your desire to focus on the work rather than on the audience, so he, too, will applaud your goading us on.

We'll see if anybody else follows.

Welcome to this corner of the blogosphere, by the way! What is the URL for your blog?

Devilvet said...

Freeman said...

I think a discussion about what to discuss is even more dicey than simply bringing up a topic you're more interested in. This is a democratic medium... so if one's preference is to discuss how to write as opposed to how to build the audience, I'd suggest putting something out there to that direct effect.

I am personally interested, currently, in what I see as a movement towards the audience BY the Indie Theater (the term itself being a prime example.)

Judging the quality of various types of theater is all well and good, and fun, but entirely subjective. It has no substantive rewards that I've ever seen.

I'm not a big fan of Improv as performance, for example. But lots of people enjoy it. Who am I to tell them they should stop attending?

Devilvet said...


I don't know about you but I've read dozen of articles over the years and sat through dozens of discusion panels about audience development. If that's everybodies perference, I agree talk it up...My post on my site which Don then called me on and then Scott here mentioned...well it has to do with my feelings and my hopes for dialogue about art as well as access and commerce.

For me (subjective as you put it) I'd rather known what you're doing, what you're writing and seeing and liking and inspired by ...rather than how you're packaging and branding. But, I'll talk about that too, cause I'm digging the blogo community.

Ya dig?

Freeman said...


(Thumbs up.)