Thursday, January 21, 2010

Outrageous Fortune: Chapter 5: It's About the Audience

A Gripe
I'd like to start my comments about Outrageous Fortune's fifth chapter entitled "Whose Audience Is It, Anyway?" with something that is starting to gripe me more and more. On April 30, 2008 I turned 50 (no, that's not th epart that gripes me). My hair has been white since my early 40s; my skin has been white since I was born. Since getting a job as a university professor in 1998, I have been middle class. So if you look at my picture to the right, you will see a picture of the audience member who is most regularly and unashamedly bashed in Outrageous Fortune, and just about every forum, including the theatrosphere and the various convenings put together by the Arena Stage, where theatre artists discuss what is wrong with the American theatre.Even Chris Jones, who doesn't like much about Outrageous Fortune, feels called to defend the Goodman Theatre against the apparently outrageous charge that the audience there is "all over 60 and all white." Heaven forbid!

This seeming disdain for the people who are actually among the few who are still buying tickets for theatre these days is baffling. Take a look at the latest studies about the arts in America, including the most recent report from the advocacy group Americans for the Arts (nicely outlined at Real Clear Arts), and then tell me whether theatre is in any position to be bashing anybody.

Who Are These People Really?
But let's go further. Those people in your audience who are currently 60, the ones who get hammered as "conservative" and "unimaginative"? They were born in 1950, which means they were graduating from high school in 1968. Maybe you've read about 1968 (Laura Axelrod did an amazing on-line book about it): it was the year America was on fire. So these people that you write off so easily were the ones who were protesting the Vietnam War. They were the ones who were putting their lives on the line for civil rights. They were the ones who were leading the feminist movement. These were radicals, folks, a generation that was committed to questioning the status quo. Do you really think that somehow they have lost that mentality as they've aged? Here's a news flash: I got MORE radical the older I got. And here's part 2 of that same news flash: that isn't uncommon. The most radical thinkers I know are over fifty.

And that's actually the real problem with this audience: we are smart enough to know BS when we see it. You know why middle-aged, white-haired, middle-class spectators like me aren't rushing out to buy tickets to many new plays? It isn't because you're too "out there," too "radical" for us to appreciate; it's because what you write about is stuff we've already lived through and moved past. We've been to the puppet show and we've seen all the strings. Most of you have little to say that we haven't heard before, and thought about before, and probably lived through before. Being shocked isn't that big of a thrill anymore. Tell us something important about life. Something with some depth and complexity. Something with some heart and soul, some deep understanding.

Formal Experimentation
All this conjecturing in Outrageous Fortune about how older audiences don't like "formal experimentation" is nonsense. The fact is that people who are over 60 invented postmodernism, and most of the other formal experiments that are happening were invented in the early 20th century. Are you integrating video into your performance -- Robert Edmond Jones suggested that in The Dramatic Imagination in 1941. Are you experimenting with ambiguous narrative? Akiro Kurosawa was doing that in Rashomon in 1950, and it was onstage in 1959. I could go down the list -- most were invented by the Dadists, Expressionists, Futurists, and Symbolists of the late 19th and early 20th century. How old is Richard Foreman? Seventy-two. Judith Malina? Coming up on eighty-four.

We're down with formal experimentation. but we also are experienced enough to recognize when formal experimentation is just a mask for having little to say, and we're not patient with that anymore. Patience is no longer one of our virtues. Our time is short, and we don't feel like wasting it while you rediscover Absurdism.

Diversity
It is possible to have diversity, or a discussion about diversity, without bashing the only audience you have these days. Jokes about these groups are the 21st centuries version of mother-in-law jokes in the 1950s. Are we going to be more enlightened in the 21st century, or just shift the narrow-mindedness to new groups? Are we ever going to grow up and recognize the value of all human beings?

Our entire culture is set up to worship youth. Movies, television, music -- all relentlessly focused on the 18-25 year old demographic. You want to talk about diversity? Maybe that's something that ought to be addressed.

Who Are We Writing For?
That is the question that is asked as a heading in Chapter 5 of Outrageous Fortune. Here are some of the answers -- these are actual quotes, mind you:
  • "I write for the perfect audience that is in my head..." [maybe your head will buy enough tickets to pay your royalties]
  • And the follow-up from a teacher of playwriting: "The hardest thing is to encourage students to write for themselves. That's our ultimate responsibility, to have a writer write for themselves, to please themselves, to entertain themselves, to shock and move themselves. That's our job." [And then expect the marketing director to figure out how to sell tickets for you.]
  • "There is the downtown tier of theatre spaces where the houses are under 100 seats and the run is not so long. There is a sense of actually writing for an audience. Most of the audience is people you know or the cast knows. It's a theatre community that changes totally when you go into a larger house." [or when you, like, graduate from college.]
  • An artistic director inquires: "Do playwrights have communities? I mean, are they living in communities that they're writing about, from, to? Or are they into artistic enclaves, writing about each other?" [See above for your answer.]
  • "I want continuity of an audience. I want my audience to have seen my last play and the play before that and the play before that." [But I'm going to keep moving from theatre to theatre, city to city -- and damn it, you better be there!]
  • "Hopefully the theatre is where we can come together and have a dialogue and a relationship back and forth. It's not just sitting in the velvet chairs and watching something." [Nope, it's about sitting in metal folding chairs listening to me talk to the ideal audience in my head while you shut up.]
  • A literary manager: "How do we get [the audience] to come to all of the theatres to see new work because it's new work?" [You can't -- the audience comes to see plays that connects to them somehow, stories that sound interesting.]
  • An artistic director: "How do we become more relevant to the audiences is the question I keep coming back to in one way, shape, or form or another. And I have no answer." [Hint: read the prior quotations, and then do the opposite. And if you can, get the playwriting teacher's tenure revoked so we don't keep creating these solipsistic artists.]
Hint #2
  • If you want there to be a community for your plays: 1) stay put for a while, 2) listen to people, not just the voices in your head, 3) write about things that connect to those people, 4) write in a way that allows them to connect.
I know: sounds simple, and it isn't. And most artists will see these suggestions as censorship, and abridgement of their God-given right to be self-involved and simultaneously nationally known and well-paid. But let me ask you: about the current system, how's that working for you? Yeah, I thought so.

The Real Shock
Initially, what shocked me about Outrageous Fortune was the obvious dysfunction within the system. Now what shocks me even more is the seeming inability of anyone in the book to question the premises that underlie that system -- to question the idea of a "national market" for new plays, to question the migrant worker life, to question the idea that plays are commodities to be sold, to question the desire for ever larger audiences. It also shocks me to see the obvious contradictions: for instance, people thinks it is really cool to write for specific, homogenous communities as long as those communities aren't white or middle class. Apparently, the concept of community is limited.

The next chapter of Outrageous Fortune will be suggestions for the future, and I have this queasy feeling that it is going to be about itty-bitty reforms. I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect I'm not.

Oh, by the way, I wrote this blog post for the ideal blog reader in my head. He read it, and really liked it. Those of you who take exception to some of the ideas expressed in it: pfffttt!

19 comments:

Thomas Garvey said...

This is the funniest, and maybe the best, post you've ever done.

Freeman said...

I love it when you treat playwrights like assholes, Scott.

E. Hunter Spreen said...

"Now what shocks me even more is the seeming inability of anyone in the book to question the premises that underlie that system -- to question the idea of a "national market" for new plays, to question the migrant worker life, to question the idea that plays are commodities to be sold, to question the desire for ever larger audiences."

This has frustrated me for years. It's like listening to someone defend their alcoholic and/or abusive partner.

joshcon80 said...

Oh, Scott. Scott, Scott, Scott. I love you, and agree with many of your points but with all due respect... don't be such a grump.

I don't think anyone has a problem with white people over 50 (at least I hope they don't.) It's just that they're the ONLY audience. I think that's the frustration.

I can't speak to your statement about people getting more radical as they age. I don't know if that's true. It certainly isn't true of my parents, who've spent the last few decades going from counter culture to Multiplex.

I also find it odd and sort of hypocritical that baby boomers are always all "You kids didn't invent this or that! We were doing that in the radical 60's!" But my grandparents made similar statements to my parents in the 60's, and they were no less right than my parents are now. Hate to say it, but that's just grumpy fogey-ism. Everything has been done before.

Anyway, I'm happy to have people over 50 see my plays. I'm happy to have anybody see them.

That said, I'm not a shitty playwright because I'm young, which is what you seem to hint. I think a lot of young theater artists feel shut out, like there's not a place for them to work, and I think that's where the complaint about "blue hairs" comes from. It's unfair, and it comes from a place of hurt feelings.

Your poking fun of the quotes is hilarious, but mean. It's also confusing because some of these quotes seem to be in agreement with a lot that you've written in the past.

To me, all of these questions about who to write for seem dumb. I write for myself AND an audience. On a practical level, how can you do anything else? I write for myself because I'm the only one in the room while I'm writing and I have to like it if I want others to like it. I'm also writing for an audience because... um... I'm writing a play that will hopefully be seen by an audience. The goal is always to write something that will be enjoyable to a roomful of people, but it has to be enjoyable to me first.

Scott Walters said...

Thanks, Thomas.

Josh. Josh, Josh, Josh. I love you too. But as far as people not having a problem with white people over 50, read OF -- it is everywhere. It is one thing to say that a healthy theatre benefits from a diverse audience; it is another to create a stereotype of the current audience that is self-serving, and then blame them for your lack of acceptance. As far as my grandparents telling me I didn't invent things: damn straight. I'd love an example of a "formal experiment" in the past 20 years that wasn't done by my grandparents. If such formal experiments are being rejected, we just might want to consider whether they are actually successfuk experiments. And stop blaming others. The fact is -- and anybody who teach college can easily testify from the evidence of Intro to Theatre student papers -- this youthful audience that is open to experimentation is a myth. They are as conservative as anyone else. What these playwrights really mean is: my artist friends who share my aesthetic are liberal and open to formal experiment. To which I say: great! Do plays for them in little storefronts or your apartment. But when you move to a regional theatre, you have to communicate with a bunch of strangers. Oh. Well.

E.Hunter -- That analogy is one I've used in the past -- usually it is met with great umbrage. Brace yourself.

Matt -- *smooch*

Thomas Garvey said...

I think what I like best about this post is that you nail something I haven't been able to put quite so succinctly, but have felt strongly for quite some time now: most of the new work I see disguises its superficiality with ostentatious "experimentation."

Adamflo84 said...

Tons of props for defending white 50+ audience members. Often undefended is the plight of those with all the power.
I think you are totally right about identifying the fake questions at heart. I agree tortured young playwrights and artists of all kinds can be self important and short-sighted.
BUT!!!
The REAL question is how can anything get better if both sides are happy to sit back at point the finger at the other age range?
Call it fogeyism or whiny youthism.
I call it killing our art. There needs to be a level of "Hey it's not for me but I'm glad their doing it, and will do what I can to get the right audience for them." Be it a young people licking batteries, Death of a Salesman, or Annie.

Pointing fingers is killing all of it. Whining is killing it.

Making it. Talking about it. Telling other people about it. Seeing it. Hating it. Loving it. Just shut up and do it.

Granted I love a good argument. AND that it is important to debate the merits of theatre. STILL there is arguing merits and pointing the blame.

Just a thought from a young brown guy.

Thomas Garvey said...

I also just want to add that after years of theatre reviewing, I find that perhaps my most common critique goes something like, "This is a good production of a mediocre new play." It's what I've sat through over and over and over: strong acting, direction, and design, weaker playwriting. The quality of our new plays is currently the Achilles' heel of our theatre.

silent nic@knight said...

Scott,

No communities are advertising on Craig’s List their need for playwrights or other theatre workers. So where do you direct your students to seek employment after they graduate with their theater degree? I am not being snide here. It’s a real question that one would think the teachers at NYU, Yale, Julliard should also be answering. But they don’t really. They merely teach the art form as they know it. A few have had some commercial success, but all have entered teaching to “make a living,” something their writing will never do for them. So again, where are you teachers sending your students after they graduate your schooling?

Scott Walters said...

Adamflo -- Actually, I am not really defending them as much as attempting to puncture a convenient myth that is being used by playwrights to explain why their plays are being rejected. That whole "formal experimentation" theme is woven throughout OF. It must be what is taught at the Big 7 playwriting programs. And it has become a fetish and a coverup for actually having something meaningful to say.

Silent_Nic -- Good question. I can speak authoritatively about what I say, and conjecturally about what others are saying. I say: "You are getting a degree at a liberal arts university. I am not offering you 'pre-professional training' because, frankly, there IS no profession. I am educating you, not training you. I am offering you a lens to see the world through that, should you decide to try to make a life of artistry (which is different from a CAREER in the arts), then you will have four years of reflection and experiment from which to work. If you want to be buffed up for the so-called profession, you need to go down I-40 to Winston-Salem and the NC School of the Arts." Now, what are others saying? I conjecture that they are selling the Cinderella Myth, pointing at a couple alums who are working occasionally, and teaching their students that what separates the successful from the unsuccessful is that the successful want it more (which is a huge lie, but that shifts the blame for their failure to the students' shoulders and absolves the teacher entirely). It is a con game, plain and simple.

Tom Loughlin and I are beginning a process of creating a new curriculum that will approach things from a different direction, and point in a different direction (toward smaller communities, for instance). But that is still in the future.

Scott Walters said...

Adamflo -- Actually, I am not really defending them as much as attempting to puncture a convenient myth that is being used by playwrights to explain why their plays are being rejected. That whole "formal experimentation" theme is woven throughout OF. It must be what is taught at the Big 7 playwriting programs. And it has become a fetish and a coverup for actually having something meaningful to say.

Silent_Nic -- Good question. I can speak authoritatively about what I say, and conjecturally about what others are saying. I say: "You are getting a degree at a liberal arts university. I am not offering you 'pre-professional training' because, frankly, there IS no profession. I am educating you, not training you. I am offering you a lens to see the world through that, should you decide to try to make a life of artistry (which is different from a CAREER in the arts), then you will have four years of reflection and experiment from which to work. If you want to be buffed up for the so-called profession, you need to go down I-40 to Winston-Salem and the NC School of the Arts." Now, what are others saying? I conjecture that they are selling the Cinderella Myth, pointing at a couple alums who are working occasionally, and teaching their students that what separates the successful from the unsuccessful is that the successful want it more (which is a huge lie, but that shifts the blame for their failure to the students' shoulders and absolves the teacher entirely). It is a con game, plain and simple.

Tom Loughlin and I are beginning a process of creating a new curriculum that will approach things from a different direction, and point in a different direction (toward smaller communities, for instance). But that is still in the future.

Jess said...

I am not offering you 'pre-professional training' because, frankly, there IS no profession.

TRUTH! at least, there's not a profession that can be entered at the 'ground floor' - knowing that if you just work hard, dang it, and show up on time, you'll get thirty years, a pension, your kids thru college and a nice gold watch at your going-away dinner.

The people I know in ATL that make theatre for a living fall into these categories:

1 - those that have money, elsewise than theatre, thus affording them their mortgage, kidcare, insurance and a savings plan of some sort -- all things that can't be gotten via a theatre career. These are usually the ADs, MDs, producers or stage directors.

2 - those that spend all of their time doing theatre, barely afford their rent/mortgage, consider a $10 bottle of red and takeout chinese to be 'livin' it up'-- and definitely don't have kids or a savings account.

3 - students. FREE LABOR. this is how the majority of grunt work gets done down here. ASMs, board ops, marketing assts, office assts, dressers, stage crews, asst elecs, etc, etc -- none of them get paid. But, hey, come to the cast party and hang out! No, seriously, 'intern' looks GREAT on a resume!

4 - Moonlighters. Have a 'real' job with bennies - do theatre in their extra time. Not always the most reliable for rolling with the quirky schedule shit that always happens as shows come down the production stretch run -- their 'real' jobs come first, understandably.

5 - Kept men/women. The spouse has the job and benefits, thus allowing the other partner their theatre dalliances. Full disclosure, my wife and I have been swapping this role back and forth for the last four and a half years.

--------------------

Regarding Hint #2, an anecdote:

My fave work that Jen and I have done this past year was generated out of exactly these guidelines. We have a close, yet large, group of friends here - most of whom are musicians. Jen and I were asked to help produce some between-set entertainment for a Holiday Benefit held at one of our local establishments.

A riot. Well-received, topical to our community. Lots of our friends dressed as elves and elvettes. We raise a shit-ton of money (relatively) - and are using the money to sponsor 4 'camper-ships' for kids to go to music camp this summer. And, we're now involved in setting up more-of-this-please at some of the upcoming summer music festivals.

Compare to the 'straight' theatre I am also working on where we can't beg borrow or steal the butts to fill the seats. But, hey! we're doing Bunnicula: The Musical! Doanchaknow it's a critically acclaimed, nationally recognized work??!? And and AND the two kids in the show? They have agents in LOS ANGELES GASP!!!

27 shows. 32% ticket sales. Who. Cares.

That's just some stuff I'm thinking about.

Jess

Scott Walters said...

Nice to hear from you, Jess. The event you and Jen did sounds great, and I am thrilled to hear you are doing that kind of work. To me, it sounds much more immediate than Bunnicula, certainly, and than much other "high art." Keep up the good work!

S.P. Miskowski said...

Brilliant! I had stopped reading about theater, because everyone seemed to repeat what I had already read. And I had given up on the bright young things, and those who agree with anything the bright young things say because they want to pretend to be bright and young or because they want to have sex with the bright young things. I had given up commenting, because no one responded to anything said by an artist my age.

Now I'm reading you, and I am delighted to see you take aim at hypocrisy and BS in theater. Thanks for calling it like it is, and thanks for making me laugh again. xx

rebecca longworth said...

Thanks for another fabulous post, Scott.

@ Jess: Good run-down of who's making theatre. It applies here in the Bay Area small pro theatres, too, minus the students.

BUT, I would argue that moonlighting isn't the enemy if you do it right and insist that your day job support you AND the art.

My disclosure: I'm a moonlighter with a very flexible (freelance) day job. Mt main sacrifice is that I don't make as *much* art as I'd like in order to eat; but by making realistic time commitments I endeavor to make *better* art. I would argue the flexibility and stability of my day job actually *allows* me to make more & better theatre. And to live in a community, and see beyond my 'artistic enclave,' getting lost in which is a real danger around here.

Since the economic realities are the realities, how do we make them work for us? How to we shape them into realities that work better?

Scott Walters said...

Rebecca - While I would agree that moonlighting isn't the enemy, it IS a challenge. Jess, for instance, has a wife and two children, so in addition to balancing a very demanding job working for a large touring venue, he tries to be a good father, husband, and artist. His wife, Jennifer, is also a talented actress, so there is another thing to balance. I like your idea of making things work for you -- it is am orientation that we in education need to address more directly in my opinion -- but I am not as ready to accept that "the economic realities are the economic realities." I believe that there are opportunities available in the arts, but it requires leaving the cities and thinking through the business model anew. Which is still working within the current economic realities, I guess, but trying to unplug from the urban art world supported by grants.

silent nic@knight said...

Good deal. It's commendable telling students the the truth about there being no real profession in theatre.

However, the urban art world is not something supported by grants as much as by peers and audience. They create the necessary context and conversation for the art to have value. Any rural model would need to create the same to be worthwhile. Economic realities are secondary in this country in the sense that most art is supported primarily by the artists who create it. Day jobs of this "creative class" are what provide the leisure and resources needed to produce the art.

Scott Walters said...

silent nic -- I agree. Check out this idea that I am hoping to put at the center of CRADLE:
http://lessthan100k.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/netflix-youtube-time-money/

silent nic@knight said...

Yes, the space has a "day job," same as the artist does.

I have produced under models that were supported by the other "businesses" in the theatre space. But I had a more bohemian or punk lifestyle at the time that allowed more freedom economically. It's easier to freestyle month to month with iffy business endeavors,than it is to have some master plan.

Good luck with your model. However, getting rid of the need for box office, doesn't mean you have not gotten rid of the need to "sell" a product. And to my mind, memberships seem a difficult sell.

Today we produce Avant Yarde events as potlatch. So our home, the curators' residence, supports the art. Nothing new in this. Manhattan living lofts have been sites of important and not so important performance events for many decades.