"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?