Make It Hurt So Good

When I was in high school I won an art history quiz. The prize was a magnet that said “Art can't hurt you.” I liked the brave, vaguely superior attitude of the magnet, the way it implied that “you” were intimidated by art and, presumably, “I” was not. Now that I’ve grown up (a little) and I work at a not-for-profit theatre, that phrase sounds more whiny than brave. It implies a vain struggle to convince the rest of the nation that art isn’t as bad as “you” think. It may be a waste of time and resources, but at least it doesn’t do any harm. When I was a teenager, the phrase on that magnet sounded like a bang. Now it sounds like a whimper.

In fact, it sounds like the response to a complaint: “art hurts.” Although a work of art is seriously unlikely to cause its audience real pain, every day someone somewhere is probably disoriented or frustrated or disturbed or baffled or bored by art. This may be the artist’s intention. Perhaps the audience believes the artist means to provoke them—and for good reason. But if the provocation feels unintentional and pointless to the audience, then that work of art really does hurt. It hurts our culture at large, because it makes all of us a little more resistant to innovation. So should we bow to that resistance, or rebel against it?

But maybe art should hurt. It should certainly provoke. (If a work of art provokes nothing, can we even call it art?) The question is: what will galvanize audiences to believe that provocation is intentional and exhilarating and valuable?

In the October 2005 issue of American Theatre, Jeffrey Jones worried that the field only included experimentation “so incrementally as to make it imperceptible and marginal and irrelevant.” Jones reblogged his article in 2007 and there was a passionate response from many advocates for innovation. Given the economic pressure on our culture over the last six years, our institutions have crept even further toward conservatism, homogenization, and predictability. Jones pointed to the vicious cycle of expectation between audience and producer: if an artistic director fears the audience will avoid “experimental” plays, then the audience is offered “safe” plays. Thus, the audience learns to expect safe plays and feels betrayed if truly experimental plays find their way to the stage.

But maybe art should hurt. It should certainly provoke. (If a work of art provokes nothing, can we even call it art?) The question is: what will galvanize audiences to believe that provocation is intentional and exhilarating and valuable?

Jones points to twentieth-century American painting for a possible solution. At the rise of the abstract expressionist movement, a handful of critics applied a set of terms (e.g., “the flatness of the picture-plane”) to contextualize this new style of painting. Viewers who could recognize these signposts needn’t feel lost, frustrated, and dismissive when they encountered experimental art. Instead, they became partners in the artist’s effort to discover something genuinely new.

Jones largely credits the catalogs published by museums and galleries with this “triumphal campaign for mass acceptance.” He urges American theatres to produce more experimental plays, and to contextualize them so that audiences may rise to the challenge. In Jones’s vision, this context would take the form of a playbill stuffed with skillfully written essays, much like the catalogue at an art show.

I love the breadth of Jones’s cultural perspective and the elegance of his argument. And I want to get to the bottom of why this idea doesn’t work. I agree that we impede the progress of American theatre by failing to value rigorous dramaturgical writing. I’m certainly not trying to tear down Jones’s beautiful and important idea. Rather, I’m trying to grope my way towards a revision that might make his idea actionable, because I believe deeply in the spirit behind it, and that an appetite for innovation in the arts strengthens our culture’s aptitude for innovation in all other fields.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves.

Today, some online publications have sought to fill the niche of floundering print publications. But in 2011, how many public intellectuals are tackling wide swaths of American culture and widely read by the middle class?

The first hitch I see in Jones’s argument is that we tend to conflate dramaturgical writing with marketing writing. This may partially be a function of downsizing: the same employee is often asked to write copy that sells tickets and also write copy that contextualizes a new play. The goal of the first type of writing is different from the goal of the second. The intended readers are slightly different, too. Yet we often end up generating all-purpose copy that’s somewhere between marketing language and dramaturgical language. And that copy is not usually very effective at either getting people to buy tickets or getting them to embrace risky new work.

Here’s the second hitch in the argument: it assumes that the general public actually takes notice of critical writing. That’s a bit of a leap (and it’s probably the reason most theaters won’t pay for it). The example of abstract expressionist catalogues is interesting. In the mid-twentieth century the US had public intellectuals, people like James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, who wrote about a wide range of cultural phenomena. We also had a healthy publishing industry that allowed those writers to cross back and forth between academic journals and mainstream newspapers and magazines. Today, some online publications have sought to fill the niche of floundering print publications. But in 2011, how many public intellectuals are tackling wide swaths of American culture and widely read by the middle class?

Wait…make that upper middle class. Sure, Clement Greenberg’s essays on Pollock in the Parisian Review helped abstract expressionism forge a path to mainstream acceptance. But the article in Fortune declaring Rothko’s paintings a good “speculative investment” didn’t hurt, either. The small group of early champions behind abstract expressionism were mostly wealthy, highly educated, and not in the same place at the same time.

Theatre, unlike most paintings, is a time-based, site-specific, populist art form. Theatrical innovation happens live in front of a finite group of people who can never share that exact same live experience with others. Whereas many paintings gain more admirers—and monetary value—as the years pass, a theatrical event begins to die the moment it is born. Even though scripts written by Sophocles have survived since the fifth century BCE, they’re just a partial record of an innovation no one will ever fully experience again.

And so to make American theatre hospitable to innovation, we must create a tool to effectively contextualize risky new work and to galvanize a critical mass of people in the same time and place. Could such a thing exist? My third quibble with Jones’s idea is this: not enough audience members will respond to the same kind of contextual tool.

The museum world commonly acknowledges that one size does not fit all. When it comes to cultural experiences, different adults learn and participate in very different ways. Conveniently, my theater is smack in the middle of the Smithsonian campus in Washington, DC. Every chance I get, I pick the brains of curators and exhibit designers to find out what’s working for them.

At the Newseum (a journalism center packed with high-tech interactive stations), the exhibits are designed for three different types of visitors: “skimmers, swimmers, and divers.” The aquatic metaphor refers to how deeply a visitor tends to interact with new information: by glancing at the big picture, by selectively engaging, or by studying every last detail.

Similarly, the Hirshhorn Museum provides three types of interpretive programs to contextualize modern and contemporary art: discussion, dialogue, and conversation. “Discussions,” like lectures, are led by an expert who delivers prepared remarks in order to make an argument about the art. “Dialogues” are also guided by a leader, but may be redirected in response to the listeners’ questions and interests. “Conversations” avoid the hierarchy of leaders and listeners. Instead, they allow peers to spontaneously create the structure and content of the interaction. Kristy Maruca, who manages the Hirshhorn’s interpretive programs, trains museum guides to engage with visitors who seem puzzled or frustrated by the art. These guides are students of art, art history, and education who receive internship credit for their work at the museum. Maruca urges them to listen closely to the visitors’ questions and tailor the form of their interaction accordingly.

Dramaturgical essays, on the other hand, usually take the form of “discussions,” (that is, prepared arguments delivered by an expert without input from the public). And they’re intended only for the “divers” at the event—leaving the skimmers and swimmers on their own.

So what now? I wholeheartedly agree with Jones that the American theatre must innovate, and that to do so we must contextualize innovation to make it intentional, exhilarating, and valuable in the eyes of its audience. And I’ll propose an addendum: that the contextual tools we create must be as innovative, authentic, and varied as the new art itself.

I’ll also throw in a prediction: that the most successful of these contextual tools will include opportunities for all audiences—skimmers, swimmers, and divers alike—to make meaning of the art for themselves.

I can’t claim that last point is mine. Anyone who has read Lynne Conner’s In and Out of the Dark, or Patricia Martin’s Tipping the Culture, or Wolf Brown’s Getting in on the Act will recognize it. Study after study has shown us that contemporary audiences crave opportunities to actively assign meaning to their own experience. In other words, something—social media or video games or reality TV or smartphones or some force of contemporary Western life—is making more and more of us lean away from “discussion” and lean towards “dialogue and conversation.”

Some theatres have responded by crowdsourcing the critical writing responsibility and posting audience reviews of a play on the theatre’s website. It’s a brave move, but if we ask audiences to take on the full burden of contextualization, we force the artists to take the audience’s lead. Ultimately, unless a theatre is willing to post their audience’s opinions and then blatantly disregard them, it will discourage instead of encourage innovation.

However, I believe empowering audiences with a range of interpretive tools can indeed work; I’ve begun to catch a glimpse of progress.

many actors on stage
American Repertory Theatre's (ART) production of Full Circle by Charles Mee, 2000.
Photo courtesy of ART.

Two years ago my colleagues and I held a conference on theatre, democracy, and engagement in our nation’s capitol. The conference was built around a highly innovative production of Full Circle written by Charles Mee and directed by Michael Rohd. We invited colleagues from around the country to take this show as a case study and give us suggestions and challenges about how we might build a stronger partnership with our audience around truly provocative work.

Since then, we’ve spent the last two years begging, borrowing, stealing, and inventing every interpretive tool we can find. We hired a full-time staff member, Rachel Grossman, to work closely with our literary and marketing staffs to create and implement them. Rachel named this new endeavor “connectivity.” At their best, these connectivity tools make the case that innovation is:

Intentional: We encourage our audiences to expect innovation each time they enter our space or follow us online. Whether it’s an interactive station in the lobby, a contest on Facebook, or a new seating configuration in the theater, nothing about the audience experience is taken for granted.

Exhilarating: None of our connectivity tools work if they’re mandatory or condescending or lame. The play can’t put the audience to sleep, and neither can the context. Sometimes an interpretive tool is hidden inside a fortune cookie, and sometimes it’s the voice of a local politician reflecting on the play’s relevance. We can only guess which tools will sizzle and which will fizzle, but we learn from each one we try.

Valuable: Just as we direct the audience’s attention to innovation when they enter our space, we ask them about it afterwards. We structure all of our post-show forums to facilitate analysis and avoid evaluation. In other words, we welcome engagement with patrons who didn’t like the play. We challenge everyone to put their finger on what the play did to them and what the artist may have intended. We don’t just value provocation; we value the meaning our audience assigns to it.

Two actors on stage
Rajiv Joseph, far right, at Second Stage Theatre rehearsing Gruesome Playground Injuries with, from left, Pablo Schreiber; Jennifer Carpenter; Kate Pines, assistant director; and Scott Ellis, director. Photo by Richard Perry/The New York Times.

We certainly don’t have all—or even most—of the answers yet, but I sense we’ve begun to get a clue. During a production of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, a woman in our audience was heard saying repeatedly under her breath, “I can’t stand this.” She writhed through scene after scene as Rajiv’s characters knocked out their own teeth and slashed their wrists and blew out their eyes with firecrackers. Yet after the show, the woman stayed for the entire discussion. She had developed the tools to analyze her personal discomfort alongside the artist’s intention. And she wanted to make meaning of an experience that had gotten so deeply under her skin. Sometimes it hurts so good.

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Thanks Miriam for this timely and beautifully-articulated article.

As I read it, I too was thinking a great deal about the dynamic/tension that is further teased out in the exchange between you and Michael --- between the audience activated as co-creator/co-participant in the making of the artwork itself (amplifying and calling attention to the qualities you cite about theater as a uniquely “time-based,” ephermeral, unrepeatable phenomenon by becoming even more profoundly “different every night”), in relationship to activating the audience as a more committed, informed, engaged recipient/interpreter of work created by artists.

And Woolly’s “connectivity” efforts have indeed felt exemplary and fresh in this regard. (I was at Booty Candy with Aaron Posner on the night he refers to and had much the same experience of feeling a palpable synergy between audience and event that feels rare.)

A question which comes to mind, which in no way is meant to diminish Woolly’s admirable leadership in this area, is how the demographics of an audience work in the “chicken and egg” of connectivity, as certainly Woolly boasts audiences that many in the field would envy in terms of their diversity, youth, education, politics -- how this audience’s very hunger for engagement (and habit of claiming it) already manifests when they walk into the theater. I am curious about how this impacts the connectivity efforts themselves, and I found myself thinking about how these efforts operate in theaters whose audience skews older and/or more homogeneous, even those who share Woolly’s will and vision to self-reflect and reinvent themselves.

I am excited to see how this continuum between audience as interpreter and participant seems to be blurring in more and more instances in our field. At more and more festivals I attend there are performances which find me experiencing a play while sitting in a car, or donning a headset and going on walk through areas of the city, and some of these experiences feel artistically revelatory and not just gimmicky. Certainly working with and near a leader in this area like Michael Rohd has inspired in many of us an appreciation of all the ways audiences can be activated as citizens and co-creators of theatrical events, within and outside traditional theater settings. I would also cite and praise the way this dynamic/tension is being probed by the very Rachel Grossman who coined this term “connectivity.” Her DC Company dog and pony has recently created a remarkable civic theater event, BEERTOWN, which falls very boldly (and with terrific artistry) on the “audience as co-creator” end of the continuum.

More and more our audiences want not just to discuss, but indeed to play. We live in a world where the highest-grossing cultural product is not a movie to see, or an album to hear, but a video game to play (Modern Warfare 3: Call of Duty).

While professional sports may seem a strange analogy, some of the current success of the NFL (as opposed to certain other sports mired in labor disputes) can be traced to how well it has capitalized on the sport’s conduciveness to “audience participation,” namely through fantasy football (and the NFL now mandates that fantasy stats are streamed in real-time at arenas and on TV so we can play our own game at the same time as we witness another).

Closer to home, the phenomenonal success of Punchdrunk’s SLEEP NO MORE has been fascinating to behold, as while I confess to having not been as seduced as completely as some by its artistic merits, I can tell you that for many of my Georgetown students it epitomizes what they see as the quintessential theatrical experience, and they will more readily throw down another $100 to “see” it (though I think “experiencing” it is probably the more apt verb) yet another time than to go to a traditional play.

Anyway, thanks for the beautiful and provocative piece. I love that you and your colleagues at Woolly are thinking with those in other disciplines, such as the museum and visual arts world, and I feel lucky to work and play in a town with colleagues who are thinking so boldly about how to intensify and even reinvent the audience’s experience of, and role within, our work.

Hi, Miriam --

Challenging and intriguing article. Thank you for writing it! I've had to read it a couple of times through to make sure I was getting all of your points.

If I'm recalling my studies of Post Modernism correctly, meaning is wholly and completely defined by the viewer/observer. So it sounds like what you're talking about -- from a Post Modernist perspective -- is audience as (co) author as well as meaning maker.

My thanks to everyone for the comments. And Michael, thanks (as always!) for the challenge.

You ask if I’m conflating two different ideas. If I’m reading your comment correctly, those two ideas are:

1)Audiences making meaning of the artists’ work, and2)Audiences co-authoring the work itself

I appreciate the distinction between the two, and I’m aware that both ideas have long traditions. However, I increasingly suspect those two ideas lie along a continuum. Some work lends itself to “front-end” audience engagement during its research and development; other work lends itself to “back-end” audience engagement during its interpretation; and some work lends itself to engagement throughout. I don’t believe one type of work has a monopoly on technology, or on new generations, or on innovation itself. But I believe that we must gaze unflinchingly at how effectively each work seems to achieve the goals of its creators.

Jeffrey Jones’s article (as I read it) refers to innovative work created primarily by artists and interpreted by audiences; and it’s Jones’s subject-matter I’ve tried to address. I certainly hope this discussion is relevant to the field at large. But to answer your question about Woolly Mammoth in particular, our connectivity work currently has several goals—one of which is to motivate the audience to embrace aesthetically innovative work. So yes, among other things, we hope our work will help push the art form forward.

We all have our own definitions of innovation, and that’s good. However you define it, innovation includes the unknown: ideas we don’t already have, methodologies we can’t already describe. The innovative nature of Gregory S. Moss's work may lend itself to one set of contextual tools, and the work of Sojourn may lend itself to others. That’s why I’ve argued that interpretive tools must be as innovative, authentic, and varied as the work it seeks to contextualize.

Only time will tell whose work will ultimately push the field in one direction or another. Personally, I’d advocate for any tools that prevent it from standing still, sliding backwards, or otherwise ceasing to infuse new ideas into the culture at large.

I so enjoyed this article that it has inspired me to create a word doc of HowlRound favorite articles for easy access to read and contemplate in the future. I am also sending the link for it to our theatre Board and Play Selection Committee. Much food for thought and creative brain-storming sessions [including the comments section]. The example at the end with the audience member repeating under her breath "I can't stand this" and then later stayed for the full discussion because she "had developed the tools to analyze her personal discomfort alongside the artist’s intention", was a rewarding pay off of the efforts taken to engender innovative connection between theatre and audience.

Of course there are various levels in which this contexual theme can be explored: theatre and audience, theatre and other community organizations, in-house creative process for selection and mounting of specific plays etc. As an actor and director for a community theatre, as well as a fledgling playwright, I appreciate the value of moving beyond "comfort zones" and venturing into innovative territory, which, can certainly feel risky, awkward, uncertain, or downright weird. Purposefully working toward discovering, and sometimes negotiating, a balance between what seems "safe" and what "rocks the boat" is an interesting dance. As a director I certainly see it playing out in the relationship between our play selection committee, the directors and the theatre Board. On another level, or different vantage point of perspective, sometimes what is or might be considered innovative, to me seems simply "trendy". As a culture, and perhaps species, we are fascinated with, prone to, even addicted to "innovative" novelty. Yet novelty is not always an indication of originality, or development in terms of insight or evolution. This is why the deepest level of innovation expressed in a theatrical form [the play itself] endures through various ages of cultural structure and engagement to illuminate something about the human condition.

Miriam, thank you for the beautiful essay. I wholeheartedly resonate with your points of view.

I note in ALL the art forms I work with that fear of offending the hard core sponsors/traditional subscribers shuts down most innovation. This one fear undoes more innovative energy than anything else. Yet, when I work with innovations that do find their way into being, and with traditional subscribers who attend them, I find so much more openness and interest in innovation than the arts organizations expect. As long as the innovation is well thought-through, authentic, and artistically valid, the fear of negative repercussions is far greater than is warranted. Bravo to Woolly Mammoth for preparing audiences for innovation so openly and bravely, and then trying new ideas so boldly and well--this is what makes Woolly such an important example of experimentation and change for all U.S. arts organizations.

Nice article, Miriam.

I do think you are maybe conflating two different ideas here, and maybe reassigning Jones' intent to something more easily connected to Woolly's current work.

I think Woolly's Connectivity work is significant because you are exploring strategies that, at theaters of your scale and presence, are rare; but the strategies being explored aren't necessarily new, nor are they being deployed, as i understand it, to move the field formally forward, yeah?

You are seeking ways to ignite engagement with your community through the stories you choose to tell and how you choose to tell them. Which is pretty great.

Here's a challenge I see in your article- you are framing innovation in relation to interpreting the plays that artists pick, produce and invite response to- but the truly innovative work that engages connectivity and engagement isn't work that seeks to only surround traditional notions of authorship and institutional ownership of artistic product with activities that allow others to deepen an investment in that which 'we' bring to 'them'.

The phenomena you refer to, of co-authorship and participation driven by technology and new generations curating experiences and re-making their own experiences of meaning and narrative, are not primarily based in reactions to what others make for them, but rather in the treating of cultural offerings and activity as invitations to be creators. In many different ways.

I would suggest that at the Conference Shannon Scrofano and I co-designed for Woolly that you reference in your article, a really fascinating and challenging tension was the one between:

-institutional theatre's desire to site the making of meaning squarely in relation to the literature, the text, the writer’s world and intent, of a produced theater event and
-participants from differently structured not for profit and civic institutions invigorated by the possibility of partnership and making meaning with the institution, not just around decisions the institution made.
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And it’s a classic dilemma in our field, especially as funders have asked arts organizations to be more and more demonstrably embedded in their communities, and as artists have begun to explore the legacy of many, many community based theatre artists and companies, and integrated their practices of engagement into the time and space surrounding seasons of plays. Woolly of course has a long deep history of relationships to, and work with, its surrounding neighborhoods, and I know part of the recent exploration of Connectivity has come from a desire to grow those relationships in Woolly’s still relatively new and DC central location.

But to get back to Jones, I think what I’d love to hear you address some more is content and form. Are plays that are a bit more daring in language, in theme, innovative? Is that what your connectivity program is accomplishing, in relation to innovation? Or are you describing innovation as the effort of surrounding shows with opportunities for skimming, swimming and diving, and in making those possibilities, you are innovating the ways audiences experience a theatre event? And if the approach isn’t new, but its new at your theater, is it innovative? Is it the Doris Duke/EMC definition of organizational innovation that you’re interested in, where its about a single institution moving to new ways of seeing and operating, or is it what I think Jones wrote about, ways that the field helps its artists and audiences move forward in accepting formally new and experimental work?

As always, I appreciate your thinking, and the work that you and Woolly do in attempting to evolve, make great theatre, and connect with others, both inside and outside the field of theatre-making.

I read this post first thing this morning, and I've been proselytizing about it since. Thank you for this.

The work you describe is vital. It's pretty common to hear people talk about the "risk" of new work, inventive plays, an analogy that implies that conventional work is "safe". And yet, in my experience, there's equal risk in programming "painless" productions in the short term, while the long term risks are far greater. Audiences that are bored by overly familiar work probably won't speak up and complain, but they're less likely to feel the need to come in the first place, less likely to discuss it with their friends if they do, and less likely want to come back. Those risks are just as dangerous as and more pernicious than the ones we discuss so openly.

As you say, the answer to challenging environments can't be to back off of innovative work. And no one in the country is better, smarter, or more sophisticated about getting audiences engaged in and excited by artistic risk than your team at Woolly. It's hard to do this work well without organizational buy-in: the staff needs space to think deeply and creatively about the work, freedom to get it wrong, and time to learn and improve. Thanks for sharing your insights: this is important, vital work, and we can all learn so much from from Woolly's example.

Amazing article!The community is our life force in the theatre! We need to pay way more attention to it and hear what it needs and wants from us.

I was with a friend at a grocery store last night and we were talking about a play and the cashier said "oh, you talking about a play?" We said "yea"! She said "I have never been to the theatre before". There is a theatre right within 10 minutes of the store! We are inviting her to a play next week in MD! Our community still needs us, we have to go out and make sure that they know we exist!!! Just takes one time of getting someone in a seat- they will be hooked if the programming is alive!

I can't wait to experiment more with community building and go all the way and get amazing love and amazing pain!!

totes!

This is great. Thank you. It is a wonderfully interesting and an helpful contextualization of contextualization. An addition and an anecdote:

I would add the word "authentic" to intentional, exhilarating, and valuable. I think part of what makes Woolly's connectivity activities as successful as they are is that they most often feel authentic and, yes, genuinely connected to both the organization and the work of art being contextualized. And when it works it can be amazing.

The stickers we wrote and wore that asked us to self-identify during Woolly's production of BOOTYCANDY were only one small factor, but I watched that provocative and innovative play in the midst of the most diverse, energized, interactive audience I have ever been a part of at a regional theatre. I was remarkable. The contextualization helped...

An anecdote. I believe it was Mark Lord at Bryn Mawr who did a production of Wally Shawn's amazing play THE FEVER who had small square buttons made with a quote from the play. The button said: YOUR LOVE OF BEAUTY CAN ACTUALLY KILL YOU. I wore it on awful green canvas jacket I wore for quite some time in the early 90's. It got more comments and questions than you could imagine. Odd looks. Weird stares. It started a couple of interesting conversations on trains and such. It contextualized me, I guess, in an interesting way.

Miriam's essay made me remember it. That's all. Thanks for the great essay, Miriam, and the exciting work behind it...