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.
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.
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.