About Me

My photo
Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Audience

I was recently reading a few of George Hunka's posts on Howard Barker (notably here and here) and in his usual grandiloquent style, George speaks about what the artist should be doing to knock the audience out of its complacency and challenge its comfortable assumptions. I made a crack in his comments that references "The Matrix" movies, because hey, that's what it made me think of. No harm intended.

Now, some of what George is saying is naturally true: 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. But, as usual, I found myself a little at odds with, perhaps feeling simply resistant to, what George was writing here.

I asked myself why, for once, because I'm not a person that I think has vastly different tastes than George. Maybe we don't agree on Foreman, but we're both fans of Beckett and Pinter, and we both believe in challenging theatre that is not simply "entertainment."

What I finally arrived at as the foundation of my discomfort was the repetition of the term "the audience" and the way it is used. How Scott Walters also speaks of what "the audience" wants and needs, and how George seems to think Scott is making things too easy on the crowds (It is, in fact, the title of the post.)

The audience is not one thing. An audience can be different from Wednesday to Thursday for one show. Then again, the entire "audience" for one writer may not be the same "audience" for another.

But, 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.

While this could be an endless topic, I'd like to at least get one started. Here are a few questions and comments to perhaps inspire some response.

  • What makes someone buy a ticket to go and see a play?
  • Is your audience different from someone else's?
  • How does a contemporary individual "see" a play, as opposed to an individual whelped on radio?
  • Do you think of the audience when you write or direct or act?
  • Do you actually like "the audience" and "the crowd?"
  • 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.
  • Is the artist intended to impose his imagination on the spectators, or inspire the imagination of the spectators?
  • What is the difference between "the audience" and "the spectators?"

I'll be happy to try my hand at answering those questions, soon enough. But I thought maybe, before I did, I'd just put this out there.


George Hunka said...

I don't think of myself as speaking to "an audience," but to the individual, specific members of that audience. I just don't think it's a helpful concept, at least not to me, but that's because I no longer see theater as a form of mass entertainment and spectacle; this is served so much more easily, so much more cost-effectively, by television, movies and the Internet.

As I'll put it elsewhere, soon, if I have a play in a 1,000 seat theater and only one seat in that theater is occupied, I have a full house, for I speak with that individual perceiver and her world, which is all the world for her. Of course, this is an extreme example, and I'm confident that this sort of work will attract more than that one person. But I primarily want to reach individuals, not a mass, and a theatrical project as important as this one will brook no compromise.

This isn't to say I'd be unhappy with popular success, but I don't expect it, and I plan accordingly.

MattJ said...

I agree, George, than at least when I direct a play I find it useful to sort of direct for one person, so that the production is tightly woven and focused. I also find that this helps open up the play to the most varied set of interpretations (something Barker and Foreman both value, that ambiguity). But to create a play geared towards "specific members" or "individuals," seems difficult and wrought with assumptions. Who are these people, and is it useful to define them?

We do not need "mass media" to engage in large-scale conversations. Theatre speaks to people on levels of humanity that we all possess, precisely because it is not mass media. In process, it is good to make a very focused play/production, but as an idea, it can be sweeping. If the play gets the legs it could be, in theory, produced all over the country and all over the world. And I really do believe that we can make theatre that does such things as Barker and Foreman try to make, rattling an audience's senses, while still being able to speak to everyone that steps into the theatre.

Because I think we all, in America, have a basic set of given circumstances which we have sublimated, but exist. Both in society, and in our basic human principles. It could be that a theatre which aims to focus on specific individuals actually opens up less possibilities than more, the audience DOES exist.

Freeman said...

Frankly, this seems extremely bizarre. An active resistance to the idea of appealing to more than one person? Why is this? What is so terrifying about broad appeal, or defining who we want to appeal to?

I ask these questions because as I read what George has written on his blog, there seems to be a hostility to the idea of the "crowd." I'm not sure where it stems from.

MattJ said...

for what it's worth, I've expanded my response in a post on my blog...

Alison Croggon said...

I think you're missing George's and Mattj's point here - it's not about wishing only to appeal to one person, only that one attentive person is as significant an audience as one thousand: to dismiss that individual experience (and its unpredictability and variousness) is to ignore the most crucial thing about what art is in the world. And George also seems to me to be saying also that it's impossible and self-defeating to second-guess what that abstraction an "audience" desires, so that in the end, one can only hope that some of them desire the same things that the artist does. One of the things that makes art valuable, after all, from Chekhov to Foreman, is not only its multidimensionality, its ability to be interpeted and processed by all sorts of different people in all sorts of different situations, but its singularity of vision.

Freeman said...


I certainly think that's as true as anything that's been written here. But 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.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Matt

There are similar arguments in poetry. If only poetry were more "accessible" and marketed better, an audience would spring out of the ether and make us all millionaires - and it's all the fault of the avant garde/the academy/self indulgent narcissists (pick your poison). But this assumes that poets who write what's called, for example, "difficult" work do despise the reader, which seems a pretty broad bow to draw.

The odd thing is that when you look at some of this so-called "difficult" work, it doesn't merit the name at all. And these arguments also assume that work that demands attention is pleasureless, whereas there is enormous pleasure in meeting the challenges and pleasures of complexity. The fact is that readers who are not used to poetry tend to pass into a state of panic-stricken trance as soon as they encounter the word, so frightened that they don't get it and might be stupid that they miss the experience altogether.

Poetry is particular, but I think some of these things are true of theatre, too. If people are educated to expect theatre to be something easily digestible, some of them will dismiss anything that challenges that idea as not-theatre, without even looking at it. If people knew, in approaching art, that it doesn't matter if you don't understand it, as long as you are there and engaged, it would make a huge difference. If they understood that art is not about knowing things but about not knowing things, about the rewards of attention and consciousness, about opening your senses and intellect to the unfamiliar and strange, in the way that in different circumstances one might in erotic play, they might feel more enthusiastic and less intimidated, and be able to experience the theatre more fully. It's a question of education, I fear. Educating an audience is the responsibility of artists as well as critics and teachers, and some of us educate audiences badly, so their expectations close down instead of opening up.

It's not the "audience" that I think that is being dismissed here, but what mediates between the audience and the artist, a whole matrix of perception which includes the idea of art as dead commodified object. Popular art needn't be that, but it very often - more often than not - is.

I take my kids (16 and 18) to all sorts of theatre. They are becoming quite informed theatre goers, simply through having seen things they like and don't like and comparing those experiences and thinking about them. They think theatre is hip, that it's a place to go when you want something exciting and interesting to happen. That seems to me to be a good beginning. But, in this way if not in others, they are very privileged kids. They know more about contemporary theatre as audience members than their drama teachers do, and I do find that a tad depressing.

Don R. Hall said...

What makes someone buy a ticket to go and see a play?

A question with no substantive answer. It's all guess work unless you focus the question personally. The difficulty lies in that artists are simply not like civilians. Our reasons for buying the ticket and seeing the play will almost never be in line with the rationale of the 'regular' person.

Is your audience different from someone else's?

I think this depends on the specific piece produced.

Right now, in Chicago, the Chopin Theatre is producing Tango by S.Mrozek which, from my understanding, is considered the Polish Death of a Salesman. The consequence has been that their audience has been both packed and predominantly Polish. In this case, their audience is different than the audience of Wicked.

How does a contemporary individual "see" a play, as opposed to an individual whelped on radio?

Honestly, I have no clue.

Do you think of the audience when you write or direct or act?

I direct for myself. I am the only person I can rely upon for an honest reaction - as a director, I look to make sure the end product is something I would spend time and money seeing - anything apart from that becomes empty speculation. The same can be said as a writer.

Likewise, as an actor, my performance is focused on pleasing the director, not the audience. If my performance is in line with the director's vision and the director has enough insight and is a part of the community that sees the play, all is well.

Do you actually like "the audience" and "the crowd?"

Depends on the show. When we (WNEP Theater) produce something a bit more on the side of 'difficult' or 'provocative', I generally love those crowds. When we produce shows with a more directly populist appeal, I find that the crowd is a bit alien to me - that they're not people I fit in with.

I'm not sure the term 'like' fits my perspective - I don't like most people (especially in crowds).

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.
Is the artist intended to impose his imagination on the spectators, or inspire the imagination of the spectators?

I believe the best work out there accomplishes both ends - one the one hand, providing the audience with a worldview that is unlike anything they imagined on their own and on the other hand inspiring them to expand their worldview on their own.

THE ARTIST SAYS: "Here is a way of looking at the world. Do you see it?"
THE AUDIENCE RESPONDS: "I didn't before now, but I will from now on."

What is the difference between "the audience" and "the spectators?"

Spectators contribute nothing to the process. An audience for a film is comprised of spectators because their reaction has no influence on the piece and it's performance. An audience is a part of the conversation and will subtlely change the tone of the individual performances throughout the performance of the piece.

I believe that the focus on creating 'hits' and performing in huge auditoriums denies the essence of theater. As soon as a play loses the intimacy required to hold a two-way conversation with the audience, it loses the one thing that genuinely separates theater from all other artistic pursuits.