Well this has been quite a way to start the New Year: an expanding conversation regarding "The Audience."
It started over at Superfluities, then took a turn here and at Theatre Ideas, then MattJ at Theatre Conversation. Now, I've received thoughtful comments from both Don Hall out of Chicago (Hello there, Don) and Allison Croggon at Theatre Notes (from the land of the Cane Toad.)
As a part of this continuing discussion, I'd like to direct attention to Don Hall's post "Is American Theater Relevant?" and to a piece I wrote at the beginning of December, which received only a single response from the intrepid Joshua James. (Whew, that's a lot of links.)
Anyhow... Allison Croggon sort of brings the conversation full circle by referencing how poetry has often been viewed as losing its cultural significance in a similar way, and talking about the combination of factors ("a matrix of perception") that contribute to the distancing of theater from the audience.
I wholeheartedly agree that it isn't the fault of the artists, for the most part, that poetry is taught as if it is dense and difficult, and theatre is taught like "what there was before TV." But I fear that by stepping back again and again and saying "This is not our fault" we are not helping our cause. It is also no help to view the audience as somehow lost to us, or growing inevitably smaller. It is no help to revert to more and more specialized, internalized forms of expression, designed to appeal to the few, the well-read, and the privileged.
What I am inferring, not only on the blogsphere, but in the Indie Theatre world at large, is that the audience is intrusive, and that the larger the audience becomes, the less discerning and possible to communicate with they become. That to be true to oneself, one must put the audience out of mind, or reduce the audience in size to a single pair of eyes.
I hear, often, frustration with how some people make theater. I'm not all that interested in how theatre is made as long as the finished result is good theatre. What is good theatre, also, is entirely subjective. To argue with someone else's process, or their preferences, is like arguing with the history of another person's life.
What I find alarming is the general disinterest of theatre artists in the overall disinterest of the general public. There is interesting, punk rock, tear 'em up, broken down, catch-as-catch-can theatre that will not only appeal to a great number of people who are not seeing it, but that they aren't even aware is out there.
I feel that this disinterest manifests itself in a sort of general *sigh* from most educated artists. As if they are saying "I don't care anymore who listens. They have iPods and computers now. All I want is one person to listen, one truly educated listener, and I will be satisfied."
Ask for the very least, and I promise, you will be able to get it.
It is time for us to stop speaking about the audience as either opponents, or patients. It's also time to put the brakes on viewing our audience as a single pair of eyes, looking over our shoulder, in an empty room.
It's time for us to talk about, think about, and dedicate ourselves to capturing a new audience, a generation of new audience.
Yes, there are obstacles that have come between us and them. Let's look at those obstacles, see them for what they are, and figure out how to overcome them.
I think that there is room on the stage for theatre of which Brecht would have approved, and also theatre with which he would have clean his bathroom sink. There is lots of dreadful music out there, and there is an audience for it. The important thing is not to suddenly turn all theatre into works of pre-approved genius, but to get enough interest so that we can weather the storms of bad reviews and get eyeballs on the things that are worth seeing.
There is one 'fact-ette' that I'd like to note to start some discussion about this...
Vodka: A good friend of mine who is a consultant and generally successful business-type, named Matthew Banos, once told me a story about how the vodka industry turned around its economic fortures. (This may or may not be apocraphal, but I tend to trust him.)
What he told me was that up until the mid-to-late eighties, Smirnoff (or somesuch Vodka producer) was not setting the world on fire with its sales. It was considered cheap liquor, and was sold at a low price. The solution was to get a nice fancy new label and raise the price.
Of course, the actual item didn't change. But the sales did. When this particular brand of Vodka suddenly priced itself as if it was expensive, it was suddenly on the shopping list of those with more money to spend.
- 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.