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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.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The New Audience

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.


MattJ said...

Great post Matt. I must say I am completely aligned with you here.

"Ask for the very least, and I promise, you will be able to get it."

So true. What is the point in backing down, having a defeatist attitude. Obviously the ideal would be to reach as many as possible, and I doubt anyone, even the doubters could argue that. Therefore the position to make a play for "just a few people" must be defeatist, or some sort of ugly compromise. There IS a way.

He who continue to hold onto the edge of the cliff with just a finger survives, but he who pulls himself up onto the ledge thrives.

Scott Walters said...

If you think of this issue in terms of winning and losing, you end up with a comment like MattJ's. If you think of what the optimum conditions are for the enjoyment of a work of art, you may come up with a different view. If you've ever seen a play in one of the huge Broadway barns or one of the touring houses, you will see that more is not necessarily better. Are you creating art, or commerce?

Freeman said...

I think we're using "more" in a different way here.

I'm not saying "Write so that they can hear you in the back row."

I'm saying "Do not treat the audience with contempt."

And in fact: "Let's grow our audience, and embrace a new audience."

Anonymous said...


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Matthew. I don't know what the houses are in US theatres, or what the problems are facing them. Aside from Australia, the only theatre I have familiarity with is French theatre. They have commercial "boulevard" theatre, but they also have - for the moment, as Chirac wants to centralise it all and is cutting funding to some of the most interesting theatres - heavily subsidised art theatre, which is where all the interesting work happens.

The theatres there don't have a problem getting an audience: I've seldom been to a theatre that isn't full, and the audiences are engaged and interested and educated about theatre. La Commune in Aubervilliers, a poor and multicultural suburb of Paris just near where the riots happened last year, expects and gets 90 per cent capacity. There are two theatres, one of 200 seats and another of 400. The artistic director, Didier Berzace, who won the Moliere for best director last year, is upset if it's only 90 per cent: he expects his theatre to be full. Of those people, 30 per cent are local, a figure that the company has worked hard on getting: it wasn't the case when he took over.

Didier was in Le Monde recently saying that theatre in the suburbs was crucial, that it's a way of fostering a community. I don't know how relevant it is that the riots, which occurred all around Aubervilliers, didn't happen there. But to get to my point: Didier doesn't pretend to put on anything but the best art he can find. He refuses point blank to do anything else: he started the Cartoucherie with Mnouchkine in the '60s and has never stepped back from the idea that theatre is a revolutionary act. And when you do work of the quality he puts on, and ensure that you create a friendly space in which people feel welcome - La Commune has an excellent bar, for instance - you will get your audiences. But La Commune also does a lot of programs that reach into their local community. They're an example of a totally committed and very successful theatre.

What permits this, apart from Didier's bloody mindedness and the fact that he is a brilliant director, is state funding. I think their funding is/was 80 per cent, unthinkable here for any large company and obviously in the States unheard of. But thinking about this makes me think that the question isn't really about the audience at all. If you have the resources to make good theatre - and to educate an audience to expect good theatre - an audience will come. It doesn't happen overnight, though.

MattJ said...

"Are you creating art, or commerce?" - Scott

I would say actually that you are "creating an audience for your art" commercial distinctions aside.

hpmelon said...

I think Grotowsky had it right when he said (and I paraphrase here)'Theatre is the relationship between the actor and the audience.' Before that it is words on a page, an empty set...etc. Do I think about the audience when performing? - It would do nothing for my performance to lose concentration like that. Does it happen - hell yes. (I once performed for our current first lady and I had no idea she was there until places when I passed by her secret service guys and a cast mate told me what was up. I definitely thought about my audience in that moment.)

But when it comes to the bigger picture of who we are performing for, I would say this: I detest theatre that drapes itself in an insiders only atmosphere. I don't want to have to be 'in the club' in order to appreciate something on stage. I am not advocating pandering or dumbing down to the masses. I am simply saying that to only perform for one person is done so at the exclusion of everyone else. Television is a solitary entertainment, not theatre. When something is funny on stage, the audience feels more at liberty to laugh if others are laughing. A collective reaction is a good thing, not a sellout.

As for a generation of new audience - I have waxed poetic on this one many times. I believe in supporting and working with educators and communities. I think the only way to grow audience in the mass media world (that has no cock fighting or bear baiting to lure people to the stage) is to do our best to educate them and include them. Us theatre folk tend to be a tad (ahem) elitist. Why should we expect audiences to flock to us when we seem so disdainful of them. If they don't 'get' something on stage it is not the mark of mediocrity, it is the mark of ignorance. Instead of putting our energy into the study of the audience it should be directed toward growing crops of theatre goers, who are excited to be challenged by what they see.

Freeman said...


State Arts Funding. What a beautiful idea.

I really should post on that soon. In fact, we should all be rattling that cage as constantly as possible.