Sunday, March 04, 2007

Dudley Cocke: Class Censorship

From Dudley Cocke's "Art in a Democracy":

In Roadside Theater's case, from 1991-1996, we conducted an intense national effort to demonstrate that low-income and working-class people of various ages, geographies and ethnicities would gladly attend professional theater. As we were preparing our strategy, we were advised by sociologists, polictymakers, colleagues and others that for various reasons we would fail. Some went so far as to argue that the arts are ionherently elitist and have no business seeking diverse audiences.

At the outset we found ourselves wrestling with questions that had no satisfactory answers. What is a public space? What is an affordable ticket price? How do different groups communicate differently? What are acceptable event protocols — e.g. should young children be welcome? What community organizations should be invited to become partners and co-sponsors? The key, we determined, was finding presenters and local leaders who were willing to tackle these basic questions.

Our goal of building a diverse national audience caused more work for everyone — swimming upstream is always harder than going with the flow of the status quo — but in the end we were successful. According to six years of tracking by independent AMS Research of Connecticut, 73 percent of Roadside Theater’s national audience earns less than $50,000 annually and 30 percent of those earn $20,000 or less a year. Seventy percent are rural people, and 33 percent are not white. We were excited by these results and fully expected our not-for-profit colleagues to join the celebration. After all, we had conclusively demonstrated that there were no insurmountable barriers to broad attendance. It was now plain that any arts organization could attract a true cross-section of its community — a good thing for the box office, for democracy and for art.

Alas, our news was greeted, as they say, by a deafening silence. Apparently we had misunderstood something important. As we reflected on our effort, the warning signs became apparent. One such sign showed itself in a city in northern Alabama. We were at a point in our six-year effort when we had hit our stride. After months of preparation, we arrived at the Alabama venue to be greeted by a big crowd. "This is twice as many people as show-up for our performances!" exclaimed the presenter. "Standing room only!" And the audience was a cross-section of the whole city. We were excited, and the working-class people attending had a great time, because they understood our Appalachian working-class play better than many who were from the more formally educated class. The nimble reactions of the working-class helped lead the other audience members through the drama. We thought, "What a success! We’ll be back here sooner than later."

Four months later we called the presenter and said, "Haven’t heard from you. I guess you want us back." He replied, "I can’t commit right now." Nine months later, we called back again, said, "Surely you’re just crying for us to come back." He repeated, "Can’t commit right now." So, finally, on the third call we said, "You know, let’s drop the charade. You’re not going to ask us to return. Why?" And the presenter said, "The play was really good. We’ve not had such a big crowd before or since. But our board of directors just didn’t like the way y’all talked." Alabamans didn’t like the way Appalachians talked!

What had happened, of course, was that certain people just didn’t like sharing their evening with certain "other people" in the community who might even know more than them about some parts of life. For such folks, the arts are akin to their country club, a chance to get away and be only with their own kind. Alabama was not the first or the last place we would have this experience.


I would argue that such class snobbery permeates the theatre from top to bottom, including what the theatre blogosphere considers worthy of admiration. For the most part, we just don't just don't like how real folks talk!


DAM* Writer said...

Scott, this is a fairly public place to make this request, but I couldn't find a direct link to an e-mail address -- and, to be honest, in this era of general loss of privacy, I tend to go overboard in my respect for it...

...anyway, with your permission I'd like to add a link to your blog on mine, To be honest, mine isn't nearly as tightly focused as yours, but I do tend to concentrate on theater issues, etc.

Feel free to say "no." And if you say yes, feel no obligation to reciprocate with a link on your blog. That's not why I'm asking -- I just find your thoughts and the subsequent discussions to be interesting.


David Moore

Scott Walters said...

I'd be very pleased if you would! And might I return the favor?

DAM* Writer said...

Absolutely. Thanks,