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?

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Theatre on a Smaller Scale

Don Hall, over at An Angry White Guy in Chicago, has written an excellent post entitled "Is American Theatre Relevant?" In it, he writes:

Perhaps the reason theater seems irrelevant is that we are comparing it to the wrong art form. The American tendency is to view mass media as the direct competitor, the sibling of live theater. American theater artists like to compare/contrast live theater with television and film. We embrace the economic challenges of these mass produced stories as if we even had a chance. Arthur Miller is brilliant, a voice of his generation, but in terms of immediate fame and fortune, Harrison Ford will always win the notoriety battle. Perhaps theater should be looked at as a conversation - meant to be held in intimate settings and on a smaller scale....It's simple - the more people involved in a conversation, the less appealing it is. Continue to increase the participants of the conversation and it becomes one-sided. It becomes a lecture. Once the audience of the lecture becomes too large for the lecturer to make contact with, it becomes hopelessly, sadly irrelevant.

I think he is right on the money. Yes, there are similarities between theatre and TV/movies: all three tell stories through impersonation. But in reality, theatre is vastly different for all the obvious reasons: presence of the actor and audience in same space, at the same time; not mechanically reproduced (borrowing Walter Benjamin's phrase), and so possessing an unique "aura," etc.

If theatre is seen as a conversation, then the smaller the audience the more vibrant the dialogue. Yes, there are economic issues to be considered, but how would theatre change if it were conceived not in terms of TV and movies, but rather in terms of conversations and poetry readings? What pressures might be lessened? What pressures would arise? How would the relationship with the audience be changed? How might our grantwriting change? Fundraising? Audience development? Might we be able to be more daring if we didn't have to try to fill the house every night?

An alternate view (or is it an alternate view), is persuasively argued by Matt Freeman in his post on The New Audience, which I read just after I finished writing this post, and it has given me pause...

Monday, January 09, 2006

How I Conceive My Blogging, Perhaps...

From an article I found by way of Arts Journal (,2,6186480.story) about Erik Ehn, playwright and Dean of Theatre at CalArts:

"As much as I can, I put my ears in the presence of people with something interesting to say," says Ehn. "Then the job is to synthesize and reflect back what's been heard in a general way — so, reveal the school to itself — and to be in a constant state of writing the mission statement and articulating that mission. Then, also reflecting what I've heard, in a pointed way, to people who can effect change. And thirdly, insofar as I'm able to conceive of change or enact change, to do that on behalf of the people around me. There's actually only one responsibility, which is to a kind of honesty, and every feature of the day provides equal access to that one responsibility."

Howard Barker, George Hunka, Allison Croggon, Matthew Freeman, and the Audience

Well, I guess it wasn't to be: me and George on the same page. I applauded the Howard Barker quotation George found in an essay by Allison Croogon and posted in his own post over at Supergluities entitled "The Dramatist's Imagination." Barker came out in favor of moral and political complexity in drama, which made my little Lionel-Trilling-loving heart go pitter-pat. But my alliance with George quickly dissolved when I wrote the following line: "I think the idea needs to be presented in a way that allows them to wrestle with it, so that the discussion doesn't revolve around the basic question of what the heck happened. "

George responded with a post tellingly entitled "Making It Easy for the Crowds," in which he wrote:

As I said in my reply to Scott's eloquent comment, "what the heck happened" is exactly what Barker and Foreman (and so many of their forebears, from Gertrude Stein to Brecht to Pinter and Sarah Kane) seek to question, and so, unfortunately for those who celebrate the culinary theater, the audience needs to confront the obscure–needs to think again, needs to feel again, and that this is not as simple a process as attending a post-show discussion...These dramatists insist that the basic question, as Scott puts it, must be redefined. You can't get around it if you're going to change perception on such a profound level. Unfortunately, if you question the validity of the ways the members of an audience construct a world, and these ways certainly include our conceptions of linear narrative and the integrity of identity, whether you're generous or not, you'll be accused of "coating it in an attack.

When I posted my comment over at George's place, I was very careful to delimit my agreement, because I know that George and I don't really share a common philosophical base. George is attached to Shopenhauer and Lacan, two authors whose worldview I am almost completely at odds with. (Throw in a little Derrida, and I'll open a major vein.) I tend toward Trilling and Nussbaum, myself. (Cultivating Humanity by Martha Nussbaum is one of my favorite books; Lionel Trilling's Beyond Culture is right up there with it.)

I am going to over-simplify here (forgive me, George, and correct me if I get this really wrong), but I think George perceives of theatre's purpose (if I may use such a loaded word) as being to disorient the spectator; my perception is that it should help reorient the spectator. That said, I don't think playwrights should have all the answers, but rather should provide some clear questions. Clarity is a touchstone word for me; obscurity for George ("the audience needs to confront the obscure").

Now, I am OK with several of George's examples as far as obscurity is concerned: Foreman, Gertrude Stein -- absolutely. Beckett and Pinter, I can't go along with entirely: my experience is that what happens in their plays is pretty clear -- what is open to discussion is why it happened, or what it means. But I can grant George these in a pinch. But I have to draw the line at Brecht, and also his use of Brecht's term "culinary theatre."

There is absolutely nothing that is obscure about Brecht's theatre. Obscurity would be anathema to Brecht. Brecht believed in reason, in judgment, in reflection. He was a Marxist, for crying out loud, his theatre exists to teach. He wants to audience to question stock explanations -- what Roland Barthes called doxa: the accepted, the obvious, the it-goes-without-saying -- but in order for them to do so, they first have to perceive clearly those doxa. I can't think of a single instance where a moment in a play by Brecht is anything less than crystal clear. I think if Brecht went to a Foreman play, he'd strangle Foreman in the lobby afterwards.

In addition, using the term "culinary theatre" as a catchall for anything that isn't obscure is also problematic. Brecht used the term to mean theatre that was "consumed" and easily digested without thought or reflection. Here is how Brecht described the audience at a "culinary theatre" event: "Looking about us, we see somewhat motionless figures in a peculiar condition: they seem strenuously to be tensing all their muscles, except those that are flabby and exhausted…True, their eyes are open, but they stare rather than see, just as they listen rather than hear. They look at the stage as if in a trance: an expression which comes from the Middle Ages, the days of witches and priests.” He was attacking plays that suck the audience in emotionally to such an extent that they lose all capacity to think. Clarity is not the same thing as emotional manipulation. Nor do I think that confusion is the antidote to cilinary theatre. In fact, my experience of a Richard Foreman play is that it is best to disconnect one's rational mind completely and simply experience one moment at a time, regarding each as a disconnected experience -- sort of like a philosophical Pac Man game, which seems to have culinary elements to it.

In the last paragraph of George's post, he writes: "Neither Foreman nor Barker wants the audience to think like them, to feel like them, but wants them to think and feel for themselves, individually, to find liberation in confronting their own darkest depths." Here is how I would adapt that sentence so that I could agree with it: "Neither Foreman nor Barker wants the audience to think like them [permanently], to feel like them [forever], but wants them to think and feel for themselves, individually, to find liberation in confronting their own darkest depths." The point I am trying to make with these alterations is that, for the time of the performance, Foreman and Barker do want ther audience to think and feel like they do -- i.e., to see the world through their eyes. If not, why do we need them and their plays? Every audience member when they enter the theatre is already thinking and feeling for themselves, individually -- Foreman and Barker (and Brecht and Beckett and me) want them to stop thinking that way and think differently as a result of seeing their play.

Over at On Theatre and Politics, Matthew Freeman responds to George's post as well. He begins by agreeing that "it doesn't do much good for an artist to simply confirm the worldview of his audience, or just perform a weightless song-and-dance routine." (Tangent: I agree almost wholeheartedly -- I think there is room in the theatrical world for pure entertainment, in the same way that I think there is a place in the world for a hot fudge sundae -- it just should be seen as dessert, not the meal.) But he then notes that "the audience is the center of the theatrical world. Not the artist, but the audience. What we do has an effect on spectators, onlookers, who often have specifically chosen to come and experience and observe whatever it is we are presenting. They are, rightly, our obsession. And like any obsession, sometimes, it makes us hostile." He then asks a series of questions that, if used as a starting point, could lead to an interesting discussion of these issues. A few of them: "I hear a lot of talk about shaking up the crowd, etc. It sometimes feels like we view art as a cure to some sickness "the audience" suffers from." And: "Is the artist intended to impose his imagination on the spectators, or inspire the imagination of the spectators?" And: 'What is the difference between "the audience" and "the spectators?"

I can answer the last question, at least as far as the way I use the two terms: the audience is the group, the spectator is the individual in the group. I use the terms interchangeably, according to whether I want to use singular gendered pronouns or plural pronouns (audience-it/they, the spectator -- he/she). Apparently George is different: for him, individuals never become a group, but remain a series of individuals. Fair enough -- he creates for the individual Ideal Audience. But from the point of view of the person in the audience, it's a different matter. One of the things that makes being part of an audience at a live theatre event (or a live concert, or even a film), rather than watching it on a DVD at home, is that you become multiplied in an audience, magnified, you become part of a community, and that makes a difference. Brecht, like George, wanted to keep people as individualized as possible, but from everything I've read, he was continually frustrated in this desire. A group of people sharing an experience tend to form a group, and it is very difficult to overcome that.

As far as shaking up an audience and curing a "sickness," well, I think part of an artist's job is to "make the stone stony," which means making people "see differently." They go to see something new, otherwise why go at all? If that is the same as shaking them up, then OK. Are they "sick"? Only in the sense that our world tends to make everyone (artists included) numb -- there is so much visual and aural stimulation that one must filter it out, and pretty soon that filter makes it difficult to experience anything vividly. The arts help us experience life again vividly.

The middle question, to "impose" or "inspire," is pretty clear for me: inspire. I like melodrama sometimes (I love the trashy film Con Air, for instance, much to the bafflement of my students), but not melodrama masquerading as "serious" art. Some political and "issue" art tends towards melodrama: good guys, bad guys, good attitudes, evil attitudes, good wins, bad loses. The artist imposes a moral system painted in broad strokes with little shading. Brustein called these "plays you're not allowed to hate." Like pure entertainment, there is a place for these plays, but it isn't the meal. I think the audience should be inspired to wrestle with their ideas and feelings, and part of that process involves talking to other people (which George apparently dismisses as superficial).

George sees the world differently than I do, and than Matt Freeman does, and that allows us to create these little plays for our readers that lay out several positions and allow them to come to their own conclusions. Sounds like good drama to me. But it is best when all three of us make our ideas as clear as possible, so the readers can really form their own opinion.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...