Soil, Sunshine, Fresh Air, and Water

The maladies of our theatrical system, as laid out in the past few months by Todd London, Diane Ragsdale, and Rebecca Stevens have me in a mind to meditate for a few moments on the nature of the problems they identify and on the solutions they consider. London and Ragsdale are protesting the complex network of incentives and norms that are driving our not-for-profit theatre system into the arms of commercial priorities, and they are calling for action to counteract this trend.

Stevens notes, astutely, that demographically, the audience of the American theatre is beginning to resemble the voting base of the Republican Party. She agitates for theatremakers to speak up about the lack of diversity in the American ensemble, in the plays that compose the repertory at any given moment, and in our theatres’ personnel.

She demands that theatremakers speak out on these issues with the same urgency that they speak out on political matters during election season. She overlays these spheres for political advocacy—theatre atop electoral—to convince us that in order for the theatre to be viable as an entity, we have to ensure that our audiences are as diverse as the country in which we are working.

I’m compelled by the arguments of Stevens, London, and Ragsdale, but I worry that our viability problem is deeper than we think—that in focusing on the move toward commercialism and our persistent lack of diversity, we are failing to recognize and focus on just how alienated our potential audiences are from the act of participating in live performance. Our audience development problem is worse than we think. It is the disease. Most of these other problems, which are dire problems, are merely symptoms.

Most of the systemic reform recommendations for the theatre that I encounter online from day to day center on ways to influence theatres’ content or the process for selection of content. They also agitate, rightly, in my view, for greater diversity in the personnel working on- and off-stage at theatres. These recommendations emphasize wisely, but out of proportion, certain elements of the theatre ecosystem—art and artist (and, on occasion, arts administrator)—while ignoring or paying short shrift to other key elements—the audience, the flow of resources to the artist, and the space in which artist and audience meet. Thinking this way requires that we believe the fantasy that simply changing the content presented on stage (and/or the personnel) will unleash a tide of new audiences, or will in some other way magically revitalize theatre institutions.          

Most of my colleagues in the theatre have a sense that our audience is shrinking in number without having to consult the latest Theatre Facts (which would confirm this sense). But why is this happening? My view is that as we become a more virtual society, fewer and fewer people are acculturated to the act of traversing the boundaries established around performance. What boundaries? The first boundary is inscribed into one’s identity: a person must be a subscriber, or attuned to the call of the marketing. Then they must respond to that call by booking tickets weeks in advance, scheduling a date for attendance, driving or taking transit, collecting tickets, passing through some threshold into another space, sitting quietly in the dark, applauding, and then returning home from that other space. These boundaries are thoroughly embedded in our culture as theatremakers. And they are entirely transactional and financially based. These boundaries are embedded so deeply that we forget about them, even as we protest the status quo.

To potential audiences, these boundaries are deeply embedded, as well. I can see all the ads for (or tweets about) Don Giovanni you want me to see; but if going to an opera is something I’ve never done, it’s going to be a big climb to get me to schedule a date on the calendar, purchase tickets in advance, and drive across town to a space where I’ve never been before.

My point is this: I don’t see it as just a question of content. I think that no matter the content; no matter how diverse we are on and off stage; no matter how effectively we as theatre artists interrogate our biases; no matter how many free shows or educational workshops we provide to schools; no matter how progressive foundations get about insisting that institutions have ethics statements, hew to their missions, and fund work for the future; no matter how cheap the tickets are; and no matter how active we are in new media, the population of this country is getting, every day, less and less acculturated to the act of going to a public space and engaging in performance.

The NFL, the largest and most prosperous US sports league, has seen an overall decline in season and single ticket sales since 2007.  If the NFL is having trouble maintaining attendance at its live performances, the situation speaks volumes about what the theatre is up against, particularly for a product that isn’t advertised for hours on television every Sunday.

Football players on the field
Many empty seats at a Los Angeles Chargers game. Photo by Roy Ratto. 

If the NFL is having trouble maintaining attendance at its live performances, the situation speaks volumes about what the theatre is up against, particularly for a product that isn’t advertised for hours on television every Sunday.

Our goals must be quality and diversity of content, quality and diversity of personnel, and most of all, abundance and diversity of audience. To accomplish these goals, the boundaries within which theatre is made must be pushed outward. More theatre must take place outside the temples we have built. It must happen in, with, and for communities. This kind of work must make community engagement the centerpiece of the artistic process, not an offshoot from the “real” work of the theatre.

Theatre must be a rollicking discourse between artist and audience. Unless we get out of the buildings that house our work and change the way that audiences come into contact with us and our work, my view is that our audiences will stay the same (people attuned to hearing the “call” of our marketing), and the work that those audiences demand will also stay the same.

I propose that, as a community, we focus our conversations on what audience development efforts are working and how we can scale them up. The same emphasis that London and Ragsdale demand from foundations on the ethics of not-for-profits must be brought to bear on how organizations are growing their constituencies.

Trevor O’Donnell, at Marketing the Arts to Death writes in the strident tone of a man tired of ringing the alarm bell. He challenges artists and arts administrators to shake off the complacency of business as usual, and adopt a more audience-centric ethos, in both content and in marketing. While, taken to an unhealthy extreme, this outlook could lead to an even worse unraveling of the not-for-profit model in favor of commercialism. O’Donnell’s writings are useful fodder for a different way of approaching the big picture. It is interesting to ponder O’Donnell’s ideal theatre as a “third way”—a counterpoint to the elitism he sees driving most arts institutions and to the commercialism decried by Ragsdale and London in their work.

Lear Debessonet, Cornerstone Theater (as profiled so nicely last month by Rachel Grossman), and the Foundry Theatre are all working in some respect in just such a “third way.” Cornerstone began by building adaptations of the classics around communities around the country, and then built a home in Los Angles, creating a community-based professional theatre that has touched tens of thousands of people.

Since 1994, Foundry has been creating nothing less than a ferment in communities around New York: of wide-ranging community conversations on issues in social justice and the humanities, of original works of performance created or adapted by community members, and of community-centered professional work, such as The Provenance of Beauty, a bus tour of the joyful world of the South Bronx. In addition to (or, rather, as an outgrowth of) this community-oriented work, Foundry is creating some of the most exceptionally innovative and artistically challenging work being presented Off-Off-Broadway: Ariana Reines’ Telephone comes first to mind, in addition to David Greenspan’s The Myopia, and, most recently Lear DeBessonet’s adaptation of Good Person of Szechuan, built around the legendary Taylor Mac.

Telephone, Myopia, and Szechuan are each, in their own way, seriously challenging material. One senses that the house that Foundry has built (and the “house” is strictly figurative—they are itinerant), in which new audiences and avant-garde content live together harmoniously, would be the envy of “brick and mortar” institutions tied to aging subscriber bases and enhancement-based tryouts for commercial productions.

Building off of these models, I started a project called Category 7 in order to build performance around a community’s relationship to a space. I began with the presumption that if a community exists, and that community is already acculturated to going to a particular space, then the potential exists for that community to become interested in creative performance built into that space.

Furthermore, I presumed that marketing was not the only way to reach audiences. If we could present work of excellent quality with that community, we could use relationships to motivate attendance. We could develop that community into audiences who are habituated to the act of leaving home and going to a public space to engage in performance—and who are willing to do so in other venues.

With Stand-Up Tragedy (the show we closed in early May), which was profiled by David Gonzalez in the New York Times, we were invited to be guests of a Lower Manhattan parish, St. Teresa’s/Nativity. The play chronicles a year at “Trinity Mission School”— a fictional school on the Lower East Side—drawn from the real-life Nativity Mission School, where our playwright, Bill Cain, worked as a priest when he wrote the play in the late 1980s. (He also said Mass in the church where we staged the piece. The church itself is a location in the play.) 

We provided professional apprenticeships to students at La Salle Academy, a nearby school. We built a grid, hung lights, and created a theatre space out of the worship space at Nativity Church. And we made parishioners part of the work of staging the show.

Our reading of the play was deeply imbued with the perspectives of the community members we worked with. The feeling of the work in that space, with that audience (for many audience members, the content of the show is personal history) was electric. And the work wasn’t simply an exercise in audience development. It was excellent theatre, which we performed for an entirely unique audience of veteran theatregoers (who are attuned to the “call” of more traditional forms of marketing and transactional performance) and community members who don’t have a habit of regularly attending theatre. Rather than find the right segment of the population of people already interested in this particular kind of work, we were trying to “grow the pie,” so to speak.

It is my hope that over the course of the next ten or twenty years, the efforts of Cornerstone, Foundry, and Category 7 will create new audiences for theatre. In my own work, I can point to small results. As a result of our work, I am working with a group of young people in the St. Teresa’s Nativity Parish to build out a venue for performance with the accouterments necessary for them to create works of dance and theatre, with an unprecedented (for their youth group) level of technical sophistication and attention to detail.

If we can have outcomes like that multiplied by ten thousand around the country in the next ten years, then we have a shot at developing the theatre London, Ragsdale, and Stevens are fighting for, because we will have developed the audience for that theatre.

Father Jack Podsiadlo, the man who ran New York Nativity for many years, shared his philosophy of education at each of our talkbacks for Stand-Up Tragedy. Simply put, he felt that he had to do the same for his students as for his violets. The plants, he told us, could never be counted on to bloom “on schedule.” He just had to ensure that they had soil, sunshine, fresh air, and water. He could trust that, given these elements, they would eventually bloom. He used this anecdote to suggest that he didn’t know when one of his students would “bloom,” but that his job was to supply them with the fundamentals to support that growth, just as he did with his violets.

Audiences are as essential to the performer as soil, sunshine, fresh air, and water are to Father Jack’s violets. It is worthwhile for us to consider how to develop an audience that is as abundant and sustaining as those elements in order to effect real strength, and thus the potential for change, at the roots—as well as the “bloom” that will inevitably follow.

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Hi Trevor! This is an intramural scrimmage, since I definitely think of us on the same team, vis a vis reaching new audiences. The question is how.

To your point about content: I think of content as inclusive of marketing, because everything, on- or off-stage is a part of the performance. So in a very tangible sense, in my eyes, you are advocating for a shift in content, by advocating for a shift in marketing. This is especially true since the viewing of marketing is the actual beginning of the performance for most audience members.

Here's where I take your ball and run with it: we have to reorient arts leadership to a more audience-centric ethos and aesthetic world view, and not just in marketing. That aesthetic change in mindset makes a world of difference.

I guess the response I would make to your point about persuasion and doors is that this is not either/or, but both/and. The kind of audience-oriented marketing you are clamoring for must be paired with a reorientation of artistic mission towards grassroots audience development, and meeting people where they are. As you point out, there was a big hunger for the kind of Olympian art that regional theaters produced in the era of the Ford Foundation. But not only have those tastes changed, the habits of audiences and (remotely) potential audiences, generally, have changed. As performance artists, we have to orchestrate a different kind of performance, in different spaces, that uses the kind of marketing you advocate for as part of the performance.

I absolutely agree with you that there are people who are "tuned in" to arts marketing that theater marketing is not persuading right now. But I think that to truly grow our institutions, we have to go a little further.

I like your 'tuning' metaphor, David, because it helps to describe an language that no longer resonates. But it's not a problem of audiences not being "attuned to the call of the marketing," it's a problem of the marketing not being attuned to the ears of the audience. Our marketing sucks (yes, I'm being strident, but not unclear or inaccurate) because we don't listen well enough to understand what needs to be said to get audiences in the door. Our marketing is tuned to people who were listening back in the middle of the 20th century, not people who might listen today if we pitched our communications to them instead.

And speaking of doors, I don't necessarily agree that audiences can't be persuaded to enter our venues and that we have to bring the work to them. And I've never actually said that the artistic content must change to attract new audiences. I believe and have demonstrated throughout my career that new audiences can be won by simply re-tuning the content and character of our communications.

I applaud your efforts to bring meaningful theatre to receptive audiences and I agree that engaging with the world around us is essential to survival, but I'm not sure that it will work for institutional, paid audience-dependent arts organizations that are creeping toward obsolescence and insolvency. These folks need to work as hard as you have to connect with their communities and then use what they learn to persuade uninitiated audiences to traverse our boundaries.

We're definitely on the same page, David, but I've always refrained from urging changes in artistic content because the backlash is so angry and the discourse that ensues obscures my point about re-tuning communications. I'll admit here, though, that any arts organization that starts tuning in to its new audiences will have no choice but to first adapt its communications, then adapt the context within which the art is presented and then probably adapt the art to be more responsive to new audience appetites.

I've come to believe after 35 years in the biz that this is exactly what's preventing most veteran arts pros from listening to new audiences. They don't want to hear anything that would undermine their foundational beliefs in the value and integrity of their art form - exactly the way they've always produced, packaged and promoted it.