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CUI BONO? A Critique of the Conscripted Audience and, Perforce, a Manifesto

It is not enough to demand from the theater mere perceptions, mere images of reality. The theater must arouse our desire to perceive, it must organize the fun of changing reality. Our audience must not only hear how the chained Prometheus is freed; it must also school itself in a desire to free him.” —Bertolt Brecht, “A Short Organum for the Theater” (1953)

In my role as theatre educator, I am dedicated not only to the preservation of theatre’s traditions, but also to theatre’s evolution and continued vitality. Over the past few years, I have observed that attempts to engineer audiences from our general student population have become increasingly counterproductive. To be plain, we have been forcing students to pay for and attend theatrical events that underwhelm and alienate them, reinforcing their prejudices against theatre and thwarting our attempts to nurture the next generation of theatre lovers and practitioners.

Fight or Flight? Or Something Else?

Dr. Cynthia L. Allan, chair of the Department of Communication at Pittsburg State University, struggles like me with questions of what general university students “get” from attending academic theatre productions. In her article “Scaring Them Out of Their Seats: Theatre and Culture Shock,” she observes “some students seem fearful and anxious instead of challenged and provoked by an unconventional or politically charged production.” Claiming that controversial theatre may trigger a “fight or flight” response, she reasons that “our well-intentioned removal of comfort zones” might actually “scare students, specifically first-year ones, out of the theatre by unconsciously reinforcing a phenomenon known as culture shock.” Dr. Allan concludes with a prescription for preperformance discussions or assignments to prime students for their visit to the foreign culture of theatre, thereby preventing or at least mitigating the deleterious effects of the encounter. While Dr. Allan may believe that a preperformance orientation foreshadows a challenging and exotic encounter, I might argue the net effect of academic theatrical events is less “fight or flight,” as presumed by the “culture shock” thesis, and more an underwhelmed “suffer or sleep.”

In academic theatre, as in professional theatre, transforming an audience must not be left to chance; it must be the raison d'être. The educational theatre audience is a less easy audience, predisposed to be distracted or bored. To them, relevance resides not only in content, but also in form.

A iPhone sending a text.
The constant companion.
Photo by David Armelino

Turning Off Students by Turning Off Their Cell Phones

It is important to note that, in our present era, social events allow for and include the simultaneous sharing of that event with other people at distances both spatial and temporal, through text messages and cell phone cameras. Moreover, this freedom to connect at will has become a kind of dependence, and its exclusion from the theatre experience is not inconsequential to the audiences we think to cultivate. When we tell student audiences to abandon their cell phones for the sanctity of the theatre, we have already declared—though this may seem counterintuitive—theatre’s insignificance. Another, and perhaps even more formidable obstacle to the novice’s appreciation of the theatrical event is its uniqueness. To the YouTube generation, if a play production were truly important it would have been prerecorded and communicated to millions; transmission has become a signifier of worth and the original loses its value.

By today's standards a film of the play would be better than the play itself. So we shouldn’t be surprised that students, admonished to sit still and be quiet, unable to share with their distant friends, made suspicious of the production’s quality because of its very singularity, might seem a little underwhelmed. The frisson we claimed for the event has already begun to dissipate. It is not a lack of preshow information that disenfranchises the student, it is the form of that information and the connotations attached to it. Academic theatre, to some extent, carries overtones of a cultural noblesse oblige that students suspect and resent. Even in the professional theatre, audiences tend to become estranged when faced with the supercilious. Actor Laurence Luckinbill recounts an experience with The Open Theatre during the 1960s, when theatre seemed to distrust itself and everything else, including its audience: “The audience was made up of people who hardly ever got to the theatre. They didn't understand what was going on. They watched the movements, heard the sounds... and afterwards they asked a lot of stupid but legitimate questions. They weren't hostile about it, yet everybody in the workshop [the company] was hostile; they responded with, ‘Leave us alone; what right do you have to ask these questions?; what you see is what you get; it doesn't have to mean anything’... But that's a dead end. It's a dead end for actors to work only for other actors and to develop techniques that don't include the audience.” Luckinbill hits the nail on the head, or more painfully, the thumb holding the nail. Art for art’s sake has no place in an exchange that depends upon genuine give and take.

Transforming the New Student Audience

Which brings us to the ultimate question about theatre in educational institutions: Cui bono? For whom is it intended, and for whose benefit? In his book The Open Door, Peter Brook describes the struggle of bringing work of a serious cultural level to an indifferent audience: “There are only easy audiences and less easy ones, and our job is to make every audience good…An audience is by its very nature resistant, and one must always be looking for what can excite and transform its level of interest.” In academic theatre, as in professional theatre, transforming an audience must not be left to chance; it must be the raison d'être. The educational theatre audience is a less easy audience, predisposed to be distracted or bored. To them, relevance resides not only in content, but also in form. The rapid increase in new media literacies over the past decade has resulted in an ecological shift of student capabilities and expectations. A recent series of reports commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation provides background and context for these changes. Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project defines the new paradigm: “Today's youth may be engaging in negotiations over developing knowledge and identity, coming of age, and struggling for autonomy as did their predecessors, but they are doing this while the contexts for communication, friendship, play, and self-expression are being reconfigured through their engagement with new media.” Juxtaposing this new student audience directly with the theatrical engagement, innovative theatre artist Robert Lepage further illustrates how theatre falls short. “We are confronted with audiences whose narrative vocabulary has evolved …They can read stories backwards now, and jump cut, and can flash forward. So I would say the new audiences are extremely educated—they have tools to play with—and I’m afraid that often theatre doesn’t trigger that, doesn’t invite that into its realm.” Revisioning theatre instruction to provide for a new student and a new audience is not only desirable, it is imperative. In seeking to answer an elemental question about theatre in higher education, I have arrived at what I believe is a powerful truth. (If the answer seems obvious, I apologize.) Throughout history it has been the nature of manifestos to loudly proclaim a set of principles that the writer thinks should be obvious to everyone, but for whatever reason, have been obscured or repressed.) Academic theatre should be designed to serve the needs of the student, or rather, the motivated student should be the ultimate goal of the educational process. Students will not become educated if they do not care. And students will not care about the theatre if the theatre, for which they are the audience, does not care about them.

A Manifesto

It is time for academic theatre to stop pretending. Its forms are no longer valued by the dominant culture. Attempts at acculturating students, such as those suggested by Dr. Allan’s article, are doomed to have limited effect because the cultural landscape has shifted radically. Students plainly see that theatre in academia is wandering lost without a map (or rather without a 2.0 version). Radical notion #1: Academic theatre could have a better chance of finding a new path if it stopped and asked for directions—not before the event or afterwards, but during the event itself. Let me explain. Because of the realignment of cultural experience and values, the performance of a play for university students must not parallel the performance of a lecture.

In his book The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand decries academia as a partly antiquated nineteenth-century university system trying to solve twenty-first-century problems; he wonders how to adapt “the lecture monologue” to “a generation of students who are accustomed to dealing with multiple information streams in short bursts.” For academic theatre, the corollary is evident. To obviate alienation and boredom, we must begin to treat conscripted audiences as participants in a rich, immediate, and interactive learning environment. This is audience-centered pedagogy and it requires a concerted attempt to know and to care about the student audience. In content and form we must enter into relevant engagement with our audience, otherwise the art we promote will pale in comparison to myriad alternatives. No one should be absented from this engagement. Director, designers, actors, playwrights (when available)—everyone should be present at every performance to explain, defend, and best of all, listen. Without a doubt, this challenges our identities as artists. For many artist-educators, to dress the theatrical event as an interactive learning environment rankles artistic self-esteem. But we are educators and artists and audience members. We must seek a new standard that shifts our goal from exhibition to participation. Just what new forms might emerge can only come into focus after modification and experimentation, but it is obvious, from my experience with students who vow never to see a play again, that we have to renew our methods if we want to replace their indifference with passion and curiosity. In the words of an artistic director from a major American theatre, “Audience development is the next big movement that we are all ignoring. It has to do with an ongoing conversation with our audience base, our constituency, listening to what they find interesting and are compelled by, and then pushing them, bringing them close toward the artists. That’s massive.” (London 239). Massive indeed. Yet such a dialogue between artist and audience (or educator and student) is not merely a chance to understand a consumer so that they might be courted and won—it is ultimately an expression and employment of love. Walter Ong, the Jesuit scholar known for studying the evolution of human consciousness, gets right to the point: “If I am going to communicate with anybody at all, in language or otherwise, there must be a certain love between us or communication won't work…It's seldom that the love is pure, unmixed with other attitudes or reactions. But some love must be there.” Radical notion #2: It might sound batty to suggest, but what we must do is love our student audiences if we are ever to arouse the roar of their allegiance. In Ancient Greece the word for playwright—didaskolos—roughly corresponded to teacher or scholar. Those teacher-playwrights addressed the scintillating political and philosophical issues of their day while aggressively competing to win the hearts and minds of their audience. They sought simultaneously to reform the world and to seduce it.

Preparing the Audience of the Future

So to borrow a line from an ancient philosopher, we should look to the past if we want to define the future. When audiences cooled on the self-satisfied comedies of the Restoration, theatre managers looked to the popular arts, stoking the playbill with entertaining novelties until the dying embers glowed and a new flame of invention caught hold. In today’s commercial theatre, financial risk can be too great for this experimentation. So we must look to the universities—incubators of both artist and audience—to change radically their production tactics. One very positive sign can be found at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater. With OBERON, a “second stage for the twenty-first century,” artistic director Diane Paulus has combined work from A.R.T.’s main season with an eclectic range of local performers that includes “aerialists, beat poets, food artists, tap dancers, gender-bending sketch troupes, comedians, hula-hooping burlesquers, and pop-and-lock human statues to name but a few.” OBERON’s club like feel has made the theatre an electrifying destination for nightlife, a place where innovation and education act like spark gaps on a Tesla coil of shock and awe.

Rather than prepare students for theatre, we should solicit their hopes, fears, and burning questions so that we might better prepare for them.

If theatre cannot exist separate from its audience, then participation of its audience has to be engineered and motivated, otherwise there is little chance for theatrical vitality or continuity. Theatre educators must attend carefully, even erotically, to their audiences, otherwise theatre shall not survive the paradigmatic shifts of twenty-first century culture. As it stands now, the alienation of student audiences is a condition that is irresponsibly ignored. Rather than prepare students for theatre, we should solicit their hopes, fears, and burning questions so that we might better prepare for them. Theatre should become relevant in form as well as content. It should be of the same community as its audience. It should carefully scrutinize that audience if it wants to tell—and hear—the truth. Cui bono? Audiences are created so that future theatre may be created. Audiences are studied so that future theater may be studied. Audiences are humanized so that theatre—past, present, and future—may be humanized. If the audience vanishes, theatre vanishes.

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First off, beautiful article. I can not convey how much I completely and utterly agree. After taking Theatre Today with you and seeing the comments of the "non-theatre people" I really realized how much our department (specifically) doesn't care about it's audience. We keep choosing these low quality scripts (side note: hopefully that will change with an undergrad on the play-choosing committee) and the "113ers" are completely turned off. Why would anyone go see some avant-garde, masturbatory play about nothing when you can stay at home and watch great shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad?

The best example I can think of is "Tartuffe Lab". Jeanette and I saw it tonight, and our complaints probably mirrored your own. It was the first time I actually contemplated leaving a show at intermission. Afterwards I was livid. Who was the audience for that? Who was that intended for? What was the point? How much money did we spend on this? WHY ARE WE DOING SHOWS LIKE THIS?! Even the theatre majors were checking their watches every five minutes. Thank god I got a drink before hand or I wouldn't have made it through.

I honestly don't think the riddle to "making the 113ers NOT hate theatre" is all that difficult:

1.) Story.

Maybe I'm narrow-minded but if I go see a play, I want narrative, and a good one too! I don't want to watch a "devised workshop" that seems to be a new theme in our department. I want characters that I feel an emotional connection with, that go through conflicts and deal with them. I would much rather have stayed home and watched seven episodes of The Office instead of seeing "Tartuffe Lab". I can say with confidence, I am not alone. I'll take a Jim-Pam-slow-burn love story over complete and utter nonsense any day.

2.) Play.

I think that's the next big step in theatre: letting our audiences PLAY (god forbid). This is what I loved about Sleep No More. I was having FUN. I was having so much fun that I actually didn't care that the story wasn't super clear to audiences unfamiliar with Macbeth. You've spoken before about how incredible video games are. Why would anyone want to go to the theatre if such a thing were at your disposal? It's interactive, fun, beautiful, with interesting characters and stories, all right at home! Sleep No More does it one better though. It makes you an actual part of it. You tell the story, you find the scenes and characters. The play isn't just on a proscenium stage given to you. You have to work for it and you do because the work is amazing and you want to see what happens.

This is where theatre is going. It's not enough just to watch anymore. We have to become a part of it. All you can do with Tv and Movies is watch. Video games let you control the action but you're still not actually a part of the world. Theatre is the only place to letting the audience become something else. They need to become the players as well. Tartuffe Lab and Lemon Boots made pitiful attempts at this by letting us on stage for a whole 30 seconds. It was forced, meaningless and non-committal. Tartuffe Lab should have been about us the entire time, it was all improv yet we were never really apart of it. Sure, sometimes the actors would look at us and we got to go on stage a little bit but I didn't get to make a decision. I was told to walk around some boards and sit back down. There was no freedom or choice, nothing to actually engage an audience.

That's it. That's all we need. A good story and some playtime. Hell, we could get happier audiences if we just implemented one of them into our shows! Sleep No More allows the audience to play but the story's unclear - still fabulous. War Horse doesn't have an option to play but the story and conventions used made it absolutely incredible. Not a person in the audience wasn't completely engaged. When you hear a theatre of 750 people all gasp at the same time, you've got something. Hopefully, our department (and the rest of academic theatre) can learn to adapt and understand the audiences of today.

Thanks for making me think Craig,


Craig, I completely understand the student mentality you describe. I attend the University of Houston, and when performing it's easy to pick out Acting 1300 students in the audience- apathetic, disengaged- the signs are obvious. There is a community culture at a public school that differs from the paradigm at a liberal arts school. Like you said, some students are lucky to belong in a school culture that embraces art, where the question of whether art is of value is not a fundamental obstacle.

That being said, we have a strong student-run theatre scene, and the audience quality is always weaker when presenting plays or new student-written work. These audiences consist mainly of students within the School of Theatre and Dance or their families and friends. The whole process feels “self-congratulatory,” as you put it. Sure, we garner experience as students, but I always wonder: who have we affected? Who have we changed? To whom have we said: this is

why art matters?

The case is different for our two strong improvisational comedy teams. With long-form improv, more people not obligated to see the show are in the audience. There are obvious reasons: improv is shorter, more digestible, and offers a guaranteed laugh. But I suspect there is a deeper reason. The nature of improv is spontaneous; the audience is a part of a group, a truly a unique experience that can never be repeated. The performers must be extremely engaged to the present
moment. The audience is vital; the performance needs a reaction to inform the very next line. In good improv, both sides- actors and audience- are drawn in to the action. The feeling, you said, of a “concert,” is present here. In improv, the audience doesn't feel disposable because it is absolutely necessary.

The question is how to translate this experience to the main stage.

I think there is something to be said for site-specific performance art. I wonder if this work would isolate an audience, as you suggested. Take a look at this example: http://www.perthfestival.co...

In any case, one reason I chose to attend a public university is precisely because of the struggle you describe. There is something to be said for figuring out how to engage an audience that is not predisposed to be receptive to art.

I am just a freshman, but if I figure anything out, I'll let you know. :)

Cecelia, I think you already have figured something out. You are HERE engaging in the conversation. Well done. Further, your observations and questions are precisely right. You are not "just a freshman." You are what you are becoming—an artist and art lover who is curious about the perennial adjustments and reconfiguration of human discourse. (By the way, I try to extend this investigation to my students and colleagues through Facebook. Check your inbox for an invitation.)

As a theatre artist very recently out of college, I feel like it’s worth noting that on most college campuses, there are different kinds of “academic theater.” At Boston University, from which I recently graduated, there are productions put on by the School of Theatre within the College of Fine Arts, and then there are many student-run theatre groups. These two separate entities serve very different audiences within the larger university. The SOT productions are targeted towards other students in the program. These audiences are usually incredibly enthusiastic; engaging with the plays in a passionate, direct, critical way. The students are motivated; therefore, academic theater is meeting its ultimate goal (as defined in this post). Additionally, the students, budding theater artists, are being trained to be active, engaged audiences, which is vitally important.

On the other side of the “academic theater” spectrum, there are the student-run theater groups. The audience for these pieces tends to be friends of those involved. However, I’ve found that these audiences usually react positively and enthusiastically, even if they’re attending to be supportive, not out of a pre-existing desire to see the performance. The challenge, then, I think, is finding a way to bridge the gap between “I’m going to see this play because my friend is in it” and the active choice of “I’m going to see a play because I want to.” The challenge is to create a personal connection based on either the material being presented or a specific company to replace that connection of friendship outside of academic theater.

Also, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that just because young people can’t text or tweet our way through a theatrical experience that we won’t come. In fact, I feel as though, since so many of our daily interactions take place via the internet or cell phones, there is an inherent, often unacknowledged yearning for direct, immediate human interaction. Live music is still incredibly popular even though we can get pretty much whatever we want at any time online. We need to make the theatre as dynamic a place for an experience as a concert venue. And I don’t mean that literally—I love The Donkey Show as much as any 20-something who has lived in Boston, but not everything has to be as flashy and interactive as that. I think making new, dynamic theatre that speaks to younger audiences (and making it affordable!) can be enough.

Thank you so much for taking time to respond to this. What you describe at Boston University sounds exciting and fulfilling. At my university we have a similar "coterie" audience: family and friends who attend the student-run productions. Sometimes those productions are a little self-congratulatory, but often they are exhilarating.

What I'm describing with my article is a little different, even from your SOT productions that target students within the program. I am not addressing theatre that people CHOOSE to see. We have twenty sections of a course for general education students called "Intro to Acting." Essentially this is a class for theatre games and esteem-building, and counselors love to recommend it. With good reason—it's a very valuable course, especially for freshmen. But, and here's the rub, we require these students, most of them 18-20 years old, to see each play in our five-show season. These are not students who have expressed a desire to see theatre, nor are they the friends of students who engage in theatre. They are a "conscripted" audience. We fund our season with nearly 1,000 audience members who haven't chosen to attend. This is, most likely, not a universal practice across academia. So perhaps I am addressing a problem that is actually rare. But somehow I don't think it is.

Like you, I would hate for every show to be as flashy as The Donkey Show, yet I believe, for those of us charged with introducing non-theategoers to a potential life-long pleasure, with all its variations, that some care should be given to investigating just what might turn them on for their first few times. Some care. Some respect. Some love.

I love your statement that "we need to make the theatre as dynamic a place for an experience as a concert venue." I really believe that. Theatre is an event. It is durational and it is ephemeral. It can be a celebration of our shared humanity (though as some have suggested, it can be also a tool of maintaining hegemony and channeling narratives.) But we must seek innovation and diversity. Who knows, if we stay open, if we proceed with good intention, we just might learn something astonishing from one of those first-timers.

Craig, I'm a Theater Studies major at Duke University, and I am extremely disappointed in the state of the art--not just in theatre, but in the culture of global capitalism at large.

Theatre doesn't do well in the electronic age--you point to this many times in your article. The multiple decoded flows of instantaneous information that come about as technological innovation actualizes the polyvalence of consumer desires easily break through the outmoded biunivocal (that is, both linear and unidirectional) despotism of the theatre. Brecht himself never accounted for this; his methods and ideology are an attempt to rehabilitate the totalizing function of culture simply by replacing the old reactionary values with new revolutionary ones--thus, his formal techniques remain exceedingly superficial (as anyone who's ever seen a company trying to "do Brecht right" will likely attest).

Brecht's largest error, in my opinion, was the mistaken notion that the audience needed to be reminded that it was an audience. But I think they already knew. Before so-called "Brechtian" theatre, was the audience really duped into the belief that it was really with Oedipus at Colonus, or in Denmark with Hamlet? Of course not. Now whether or not all audiences to all theatrical rites throughout history have been self-conscious, in the sense of Apollonian individuation, or at some point in the past really merged with the Dionysian primordial unity (to paraphrase into Nietzsche) is disputable--but certainly by Brecht's time (and even by Shakespeare's), globally constituted, differentiated, self-conscious, agentic subjectivity (we might add "Protestant" and "mercantile" in there as well) was already the name of the game.

Which is all to say that, by itself, the notion that the Audience Must Become Self-Aware is, to a certain extent, ridiculous. For all of Brecht's socialist ideals, what history has shown is that, in fact, Brechtianism is one of the necessary qualities of an advanced capitalist culture. Movies and television shows thrive on the Alienation Effect. Movie trailers provide us in advance with an anachronistic fragmentation of narrative, while at the same time providing a generic structure by which to (pre-)interpret their texts even without access to their content (e.g., romantic comedies, which--as Frederic Jameson writes--we can only ever see for a "second time," since we know a priori that the man is going to conquer/annex the woman). The emergence of the film or television "star" basically precludes any illusion of disappearing into a character (just like Bertie wanted!); the entertainment value is drawn not from total immersion and internal coherence but from the detachment and modularity of polysemous elements ("Oh look, it's that actor from . . .", "This reminds me of that other Wes Anderson film...", "I wonder how they pulled off that effect?"). So much hair has been pulled out in existential angst as Broadway appears to absorb multimedia and so called "filmic" qualities--but this is not theatre's death; it's an attempt at survival in a culture of simultaneity, reproduction, and rabid consumerism.

So why should we persist in the notion that the audience must become self-aware, that it must become a better audience, that we must make theatre into a Participatory Event? "Participation"--this is the ugly buzzword of this trend, with ugly pedantic overtones and uglier consumerist undertones. Now I agree that the theatre of "exhibition" (as you term it) is bunk: a imperalist remnant of colonialism whose function is the recapitulation and expansion of myth. I find it immensely frustrating that the sine qua non of so many theatre apologists is a faith in so-called "storytelling"--as if the theatre artist's societal role were that of priest or oral historian of culture, and as if "stories" in our age reveal some kind of deep, unmediated Truths About The World which are not egregiously beholden to middle-class, white, masculine, heterosexual values.

But we're just kidding ourselves if we think that sheer "participation" is the answer. Consumer culture is all about participation: it's one of the primary mechanisms by which we assimilate goods into our well-integrated subjects, affirming our free agency and the legitimacy of our private desires ("The customer is always right!"). In fact, the entire shift from a monarchic/despotic State to a capitalist democracy can be summed up in a movement from coercion to participation, from the biunivocal arithmetic flows of taxation to the polyvocal calculus of investment.

So what do we really mean when we say that the theatre should produce "participatory events"? Will the theatre (as you suggest) die off if we cannot find a way to make theatre participatory--to transition audience members from "royal subjects" to "citizens"? I think almost certainly it will. But if the participatory event and so-called "audience engagement" are simply the signs of the theatre's metamorphosis into a more competitive product for consumer, what have we really achieved--even if it does mean that more people go to the theatre?

After all, Wal-Mart is a participatory event.

Wow, Andy. This is a thoroughly well-reasoned argument, for
which I am grateful, and perhaps a little discomfited. Despite the many
assertions I have made in my article, I agree with you on nearly every point. Additionally, I will agree that my prescriptions are vague, but there is one point I want to clarify: I do not mean to suggest that theatre will die off if we cannot find a way to make it more participatory. The main thrust of my article is that theatre as it is presented in academia is, by and large, aloof and unwilling to connect with its audience. To present a subject of inquiry and then sabotage the will to engage it is a useless enterprise. But here I am. To be honest, most of higher education continues to run as outmoded biunivocal despotism. Still, I can't help but want to fight, however quixotic those battles may be. When at last I entered college, in my mid-forties, pursuing theatre studies and the notion that theatre could provide a revelatory encounter on a human scale. I won't deny your characterization of theatre (as it is persistently practiced) as an "imperialist remnant of colonialism whose function is the recapitulation and expansion of myth." And I won't deny that the Brechtian model is overstated and redundant. For better or worse, however, I have chosen this métier. I am ALIVE in this world. I am not just a university professor. I am a son and a husband. I am a father of a thirteen-year-old child. I am not a patriarch. I am a fellow traveler. I want to point to wonders and have them pointed out to me. The means by which this journey is shared are a daily matter. This world is a mystery. I won't abandon my quest for a better, more inclusive, colloquy.

Hi Craig,

Your discourse is appreciated and it definitely sparked several responses within me. I appreciate what seems to be the spirit of your investigation as well as much of the content. This 'spirit' especially came through in your poetic comment response to Thomas, which seemed to capture for me the essence of your concern, passion and ideas. A few thoughts.

Re: "techniques that don't include the audience" I would have liked more exploration on this, perhaps some specific examples to clarify. From my perspective a key ingredient that makes theater work is that mysterious dynamic that seems to take place psychically between audience and the living enactment on stage. Much of this comes through intent, certainly involving everyone concerned with mounting a production, and especially the actors as it is their presence and interaction with each other through the medium of the play that telegraphs through space to engage with the hearts and minds of the audience. This relationship has the capacity to be ignited whether the form of the presentation is exhibition, participation, or some unique combination of the two. And while I am in favor of experimenting and discovering innovative new forms of theater that encourage what you refer to as audience participation, recognizing its value and perhaps need, I also recognize the simple and potentially profound effect and affect of having a good story conveyed through the immediacy of present time engagement. If this were not so the significant annals of theatrical history [plays] would not have the power to resurface and still inspire and move us with their power.

I appreciated and agree with Darren's comment regarding 'student's reality includes sharing experiences in real time" and potential decreased significance for them - especially his comment about sacrificing their multi-tasking potential [addiction?] to be present. This is a key factor that needs to be addressed, and not in ways that focus on allowing it and even promoting it. Let me put it this way. The next time you're in a personal, intimate, intense conversation with a friend, momentarily stop and send a text to someone on what is occurring in the conversation. While doing that make sure you pay close attention to what is occurring within you physically, mentally and emotionally. Then check in with your friend and ask what occurred for them when you "broke" the bond of intimacy to engage with another. Rationalize it as you may this type of activity is not just a form of communication, it is also a form of distraction, and an expression of breaking the bond of intimacy. Perhaps it is that quality of intimacy, person to person, one on one, [that does exist in the audience performance relationship] that in itself holds potential discomfort, or even danger? - and texting is a socially accepted way to avoid that on an unconscious level. Who knows. That's another article. However, when people cannot put their cell phones down in a public restaurant to be with the persons they are breaking bread with, then something is seriously imbalanced in our relationship to technology. Yes it's here, yes we cannot ignore it, yes new theatrical forms are welcomed and perhaps required to engage a new generation of theater goers, and that does not mean we need to bend backwards in catering to potential dysfunction of our relationship to technology in a way that sacrifices this 'bond of intimacy.' I realize finding the balance for this dynamic will be possibly challenging for different theaters [especially academic theaters] and student audiences.

Darren - I loved the Dali Lama comment.

Re: the OBERON reference. I'm certain that production is wonderfully inventive, and the description of what it included did spur a thought, not necessarily relevant at all to this production. It can sometimes be a thin line between "a new flame of invention" and an upscale entertainment novelty. As theater makers we need to be discerning if and when our enthusiasm for new forms is crossing the line into just another form of novelty. Novelty may bring in an audience, but it does not guarantee inventive substance that engages deeply. If it does, then great! You have a win/win.

Re: Greek theater "they sought simultaneously to reform the world and to seduce it." What a provocative thought to contemplate. Would have liked more on this also. What was it about their form and presentation that supported this? What might we learn from it? I invite a separate piece on this topic?

Response to Erin: I don't agree with your comment "all artists have to do is tell their truth and we will be engaged." I have not experienced that to be sufficient in and of itself. I've sat through many pedestrian plays that were someone's offering of "telling their truth." And while I can appreciate their intent, and the intense labor of love and time involved with it, that does not mean I was engaged. Thus the value in learning the craft of writing a play, [and of course all other aspects of play production] and even if you learn the craft fairly well it does not mean you will be successful in achieving that seemingly mysterious phenomenon of others being engaged by it. And yet we must keep on keeping on.

I love the feral thinking here. To what degree is the artist or producer suppliant to the audience? If the audience (student or otherwise) owned the performance spaces, would any of our shows be invited in? How many of us would be invited back? The audience does own the psychic space in which performance takes place. So we can focus on gathering people who constitute an audience with an attention generous to our performance style, or as this piece drives at, we can learn from certain gatherings how to adapt our performance style to suit contemporary psychic spaces.

I don't think the audience "owns" the psychic space. Ideally what is happening in a theater space between audience and what's occurring on stage is a living process of mutual sharing and discovery, and that all participants [or most participants] are willingly committed to engagement.

Thanks for this. Check out the work going on at Howard University and Florida A&M University theatre programs! They have total engagement of their audiences... Also, we all have fear that audience will die-- it never will. There will always be someone watching and listening. Theatre doesn't have to be as technical as social media to reach younger audiences--- all artists have to do is tell their truth and we will be engaged. Theatre is all. Storytelling will never die---

Thank you for the recommendations! And truly, despite the last line of my opinion piece, I agree that the audience will never die. But it will transform itself. Few are willing to sit and listen in rapt silence to Homerian epic poetry. For those who do, the rewards are myriad. And the impulse to do so can be encouraged, lovingly and playfully. I am a firm believer in the power of Peter Brook's "empty space." I also know that the barriers we place on the road to that space can be daunting and exclusive.

Hi Craig,

Thanks for such an elegant and insightful discourse on the subject. I am not currently an educator, but have wondered about many of these issues. I think an audience-centered pedagogy might provide some interesting experiments, such as those that ART's OBERON is already discovering. I imagine those performances may not need to be mandated to the students.

Just as the debates about attention spans of students and decreasing the duration of performances has waged for years, I find myself wondering about what you described as potentially a "dependency" of students to share experiences in real-time through electronic, social media. I wonder if turning off cell-phones necessarily would lead to decreased significance for students in an audience-centered performance, even if it was exhibition rather than participation based.

I'm thinking of other intimate events such as: weddings, funerals, and even sexual encounters, where even young people would consider it preferable, to sacrifice their multi-tasking potential, to be present in the moment. Perhaps this is at the heart of the "love" needed within deep communication that Mr. Ong was referring to. And perhaps why there are receptions after these events that seems geared toward sharing the experience, electronic or otherwise. I wonder if the Dalai Lama would experience as deep an experience during meditation if he were to picture-share photos of his zen-filled expressions as he sat meditating?

Perhaps if the subject matter, design and direction, and expression of a play were undertaken with the love of the student in mind--audience-based-- then maybe, the student would, out of love, willingly surrender their attention and enjoy the depth that may come from being fully present in the moment. And then after, share the depth of that experience with their multitudinous connections on social media, while celebrating the exhilaration of perhaps this different type of connection. Thus, actively participating in becoming motivated students...and audience members.

Either way, best of luck. Your students are fortunate to have an advocate.


Darren, you are absolutely right. The turning-off of the cell phones must (and can) be voluntary. I am a fervent believer in deep focus and extended attention. As an educator, i am devoted to stoking the flame of curiosity. I just believe that our fundamental approach must include paying closer attention to the students, to the listeners, to the audience. After we have won their hearts and minds, we can turn them loose to begin their own journeys of discovery, which, for those we have touched, just might include a wandering off, sans phone, sans camera, sans earbuds.

Thomas, I look at OBERON as a catalyst, not as a substitute. To restore effervescence to the theatrical event, an infusion of the unexpected is required—for the adept as well as the neophyte. Theatre in higher education should be more than the minor leagues of the profession and more than a funded agency for the preservation of the abstruse. It should be a place where students—real students, not hypothetical or idealized—are provided an environment in which they not only discover meaning, but also forge it. Let's mess about a little. Let's remove the masks from the commedia. Let's replace the boy actors with women. Evolving the form is vital and thoroughly consistent with theatre's roisterous history. We in theatre have nothing to fear from Oberon. If anything, the time is right for another pass across the eyes from his special flower.

I'm not really convinced that regular audience members at Oberon are going to become drawn to the works of Beckett or Barker: this is, by and large, an audience that thinks "Brechtian" is a synonym for "steampunk." The segment of the audience that does know better was probably already engaged with theatre. For that matter, few of any of the artists who do perform at Oberon, see themselves as doing theatre: most aren't engaged with the Boston area's theatre community.

Certainly the staff at Oberon have to be credited for trying to reach out to the local theatre community, but even they note that a lot of theatre is not suited for the venue, essentially they warned that: "if your play would be disrupted by somebody spilling a tub of ice in front of the stage then this may not be the right venue for your project." Point being that it's a drinking establishment.

I agree. Regular audiences at OBERON might not be drawn to the works of Beckett and Barker. Neither will regular audiences at South Coast Repertory, the Guthrie, the O'Neill, or the Goodman. The point is that we reach out. Beckett was a revolutionary who didn't back off from new forms; he embraced the possibilities of television right away. Barker knows his work is not for all markets. In his words: "I submit all my plays to the National Theatre for rejection. To assure myself I am thinking clearly." I am not suggesting OBERON is the panacea for a dwindling regular theatre audience. I am suggesting it is one attempt, among many, to acknowledge that the information technologies of the past twenty years are responsible for more than just a generational disagreement. The changes are in fact ecological. They are as powerful as those wrought by Gutenberg and they are much more rapidly reshaping our communication and epistemology.

You complain of audiences unable to differentiate Brecht from "steampunk." Give them time and reason, and they just might seek that understanding. There is nothing wrong with a theatre doubling as a drinking establishment. Brecht often spoke of what he termed a ‘smoker's theatre', where audience members would puff on cigars, much like they would at a boxing match, whilst watching a performance. The relaxed audience are interested in what they are watching; they are there to be entertained, and to think.

There is a place for venues like Oberon, but to champion Oberon as the only alternative for students (and note that last time I saw a show there, I was asked for ID before I could get beyond the door-- as with a night club-- so that puts at least some shows beyond the reach of most undergraduates-- meaning that this is not a "conscripted audience") when there are other models worthy of consideration, even in the Boston area, is just a little off.

No mention of the flowering of Boston's fringe theatre scene (mostly represented by the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston)? They've been keeping ticket prices low-- and many member companies have even been experimenting with "pay-what-you-can" pricing-- making the shows fairly accessible to audience members without full time jobs.

And really? Is it too much to ask students not to use their cellphones and pay attention in certain environments? Even teenagers understand that as strong as the compulsion may be--- it's still rude in certain contexts.

Ian, my article isn't about what's working on Boston's fringe scene. My article isn't about the small theatre scene at all, it's about the precarious process of introducing general education students to the theatre. Furthermore, I do not advocate cell phone use in the theatre (although there are acceptable experiments with that very notion.) I am critiquing a starting place with the uninitiated. I am describing the utility of addressing the students where they live. I am also describing the necessity of starting them off with theatre that is MORE INTERESTING to them than their cell phones. And that requires an attention to who they are and what might capture their attention. Acclimation to the protocol of theatre will come as they grow to love its special qualities. Then they can seek off-campus venues that excite them. If it's not OBERON, it's somewhere else. OBERON is not the paragon. It's also not a capitulation. It is an attempt to move university theatre away from the esoteric margins. And the vibrant theatre scene you describe might be just the ticket for young college students. Let's bring them THERE (or to similar burgeoning theatre enclaves) instead of keeping them on campus to fund our self-serving productions when those productions are created without the student in mind.
Hi Ian,
I've just come back from driving my son to school. He and I always have great conversations en route. He's in the seventh grade and already considering a future career, most likely in engineering or architecture. He also wants to design video games. I told him that revenue from sales of video games has begun to outpace the film industry. I told him that industries, mediums, and art forms change. Then I told him about something that I think relates to our discussion here. In academic theatre there has been another indicator that tectonic plates are moving and the familiar topography is not what it was. In April of last year, the School of Theatre at USC announced it was changing its name to the School of Dramatic Arts. “Almost all of the major schools that teach what we teach are called dramatic arts,” Madeline Puzo, the school’s dean, told Culture Monster. “Theater is our artistic home, but we know that our students want and will succeed within different platforms.” To me, this is even more significant than attempts like OBERON's to acknowledge a cultural paradigm shift. I guess what I'm saying is that even the students who have gone to university to pursue the theatre know that it is a moving target. Let us serve them and learn from them at the same time. And likewise, let us serve the students who have enrolled in a Theatre Appreciation class by blowing their minds with the possibilities of the future, a future that they are in the process of shaping.

I'm still not grasping why you think Oberon is a great example. It's part of Harvard University's American Repertory Theatre, of course, but Harvard University is also a school with a number of student run theatre and dance companies-- despite not having a theatre major!

I wasn't a theatre student in school, but I attended theatre as a student. Why? Because it just seemed to me that being exposed to art was part of a liberal arts education, even if I didn't have a paper due the following week.

But back to my earlier point: is Oberon really serving students in large numbers in a manner that adds to the intellectual life of the students? Do you have stats on this?

Ian, I don't have stats. I only have suggestions and anecdotal observations. Personally, I might over time conclude that OBERON is ineffective or repetitive. What I'm trying to point out is that universities have a duty to experiment, not merely esoterically, but motivationally. We must create stimulating learning environments, not merely offer instruction. I work for a state university. As I said in a reply to another post, we push 1,000 general education students into the theatre. We should make the conversation less one-sided. We are not providing a set of facts, but attempting to stoke affinities. That is our charge. So, maybe OBERON is a good example, maybe not. What examples might you offer?

Well, let's see, I did note that Harvard has quite a number of student-run theatre groups, and that Harvard is also in a metropolitan area with an increasingly vibrant fringe theatre scene-- which means, many artists under 40, low ticket prices, and a certain cachet that comes from being outside of the LORT system...

...I also note that Oberon isn't there primarily to serve students-- let alone a "conscripted audience." It's a mostly commercial venture (not that there is anything wrong with that) in terms of programming. If I recall correctly, they term themselves as a "theatrical nightclub." Not that I find anything wrong with that-- I was a cabaret performer for many years-- but let's not mistake it for something that it is not.

Ian. I see that I gave the impression in my article that I was praising one particular venue in one particular town. My bad. I will revise the article should the opportunity arise. I meant only to suggest OBERON as one among many other possible models to serve as an antidote to the increasingly moribund liberal arts "enhancement" that is expressed by "assigned" theatre attendance, especially if that assignment includes FIVE productions. Let's divert our attention from Harvard to the hundreds of institutions across the country where theatre-going is a chore. Can we acknowledge that it's a grand affront if those first encounters are not seductive or germane? If we do not, then the audiences we are attempting to construct will feel shanghaied, dock-pressed, and doomed. It's not a "dumbing down" of art that I propose. It's a recognition of the dignity inherent in the unexpected questions and innovations these new audiences can bring. I am convinced that we must restructure the engagement to catalyze that process.

The problem was mistaking what is an essentially for-profit arm of a university's resident theatre as an educational facility-- and therefore representing a solution to the problem of disengaged students.

It's a grand affront when theatre-going is a chore even when one is a committed fan of the medium. That means that those who make theatre for a "conscripted audience" or are involved in conscripting said audience have the duty of presenting high quality work with qualities that are hard to find in other, more commercial media. If a new play comes across to the audience as a television pilot, it's invariably going to be seen as a more expensive yet lower quality imitation.

I still have to ask the question, why we have to be apologetic about exposing college undergraduates to challenging material, whether we're talking about classic (or avant-garde) plays, similarly challenging material from other fields.

I wasn't a theatre major in undergrad, but I want to see plays-- no one conscripted me, I chose to go because I was a genuinely curious person, and the only thing that was a chore was a commercial broadway musical that was in tryouts at our performing arts center.

Ian, I agree.

I totally agree, especially about the duty of presenting challenging, high-quality work. But I'm also interested, at this point, in the manifestation of the presentation, not the content. Nearly twenty years ago, an important declaration was made about stasis in higher education. Check out the article by Robert B. Barr and John Tagg, "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education", Change Magazine, Nov/Dec., 1995. From the abstract: "A paradigm shift is taking hold in higher education around the globe. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed institutions of higher learning is this: A college exists to provide instruction. This past decade has seen a profound and dramatic change-a shift to a new paradigm: A college exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. The impetus for this shift comes mainly from two sources: recent advances in brain and learning research; and from technological innovations that supports learning."

The article advocates for a shift from the Instruction Paradigm to a Learning Paradigm. "In the Learning Paradigm, a college's purpose is not to transfer knowledge but to create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, to make students members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems. The college aims, in fact, to create a series of ever more powerful learning environments."

I am interested in what such a paradigm shift would do for academic theatre.

Ian, I am glad to hear that, as a non-theatre major, you found theatre-going an attractive proposition. I am also glad that you are aggravated by the superficial and disingenuous. But, from my observations over the past ten years, you are an anomaly. Among the general university population in this country, we have a cultural disinclination toward the theatre, except as it might be consumed as a Broadway product. I think it's time we experiment with the structured engagement.

The reason I am pushing for a complete overhaul of the means of presenting to a conscripted or "accidental" university audience is that I feel the issue is connected to a much larger and systemic challenge. As claimed in the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Youth Project: "The future of conventional learning institutions is past—it's over—unless those directing the course of our learning institutions realize, now and urgently, the necessity of fundamental and foundational change." So let's get down to it.

And let's get back to it. In a 1910 article by Clayton Hamilton, the communal nature of the art is emphasized: "We have to be alone in order to appreciate the Venus of Melos or the Sistine Madonna or the Ode to a Nightingale or the Egoist or the Religio Medici; but who could sit alone in a wide theatre and see Cyrano de Bergerac performed? The sympathetic presence of a multitude of people would be as necessary to our appreciation of the play as solitude in all the other cases."

Ian, I've enjoyed this exchange. But I ask you again, how do we encourage and adjust for the sympathies of the unmotivated, uninitiated audience? Outside of the university, the marketplace will dictate. Audiences will come or they won't. But in the learning environment, we have a duty to guarantee engagement.

When I find myself in the position of ensuring my son attends to an important lesson—a principle related to his safety, for instance—I don't just put it out there for him to accept or disregard. His learning is my ultimate goal. So I pay close attention to him, enter into sympathy with him, so I can discover how he needs to hear.

Beyond creating art, at a university we must discover how to create the "sympathetic presence" of an unmotivated audience, or we are abdicating our duty as educators.

Seems to me that we're reaping what we've sewn in terms of lowered educational expectations in the humanities: both in terms of critical analysis and an appreciation of the richness of the classics or the provocations of various avant-gardes.

This distinction between the paradigm of learning versus that of teaching seems rather frivolous. I can't understand why a work if a classic or why an avant-garde was so provocative unless I can exercise my critical and interpretive muscles; and I can't exercise those critical and interpretive muscles unless I test them against a rich canon-- we need that in a learning environment-- especially in the humanities.

The real mistake here is the notion that liberal arts education should cater to the intellectually incurious or that it should reward close-mindedness and lack of motivation.

Give them the opportunity for a rich cultural experience in their college years-- you might not win everyone over; but you'll win over a lot more if you offer them only mediocrity.

Sure, not everyone can be expected to read Dante or Kierkegaard in college, but they should graduate equipped so that if they should choose to do so later in life, it will not be a completely insurmountable challenge.