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But What's The Audience For?

Until this past June, I’d never attended a theater conference. I came close one year, when my tiny, (now defunct) theater company banged on the doors of the TCG conference with a project about American identity, but we never quite got in. And, of course, I’m not counting all the playwrights conferences at which I’ve worked—the O’Neill, PlayPenn, and Sundance may have “conference” in their names, but they are really new play development environments, and I’m in there to design a couple (or fifteen) new plays, not to discuss big ideas or movements.

But last April, Murph Henderson, of the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative (the theater arm of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and the lifeblood of Philadelphia theater), called to ask me if I wanted to go to the Prague Quadrennial. Now, my Momma didn’t raise any fools—my theater conference virginity has always been more about time and money than philosophy; not only was I happy to be a part of a movement to help Philly designers develop our voices and our craft, I’m also a sucker for Eastern Europe. So I found a way to fill my week between launching a tour in Amsterdam and showing up in Prague (woe is me), and filled out every Pew Center release form with glee.

Of course, like a responsible grant recipient, once I arrived, I tried to keep a record of my thoughts about everything I saw. When I added it all up, the most telling observation was fairly simple and, I guess, fairly obvious—most Americans are making theater that is remarkably different from what’s happening in the rest of the world.

As a recent émigré from New York City, which is often considered the epicenter of our national theater identity, I have a fairly clear sense of how the “big companies” (Broadway, almost all of Off-Broadway, and most LORT theaters) strive to make their work. American mainstream theater is almost entirely created with the very simple goal of telling singular stories with great polish. We do it very well, in both song and drama, and we approach it in a myriad of ways: monologue, dialogue, multi-set, single set, abstract, linear, etc. We may weave many storylines together, but it’s almost always in the service of one single idea, and however complicated or simple the narrative, success is judged based on a combination of clarity, control, splash, and professionalism. And we’re all really confident that this is the best kind of theater to make.

To be perfectly honest, having been so focused throughout my career on helping to make this happen, my time in Prague sent me into a sort of shock. Before I go on, if you don’t know me or my work, you should know that I am largely a product of the James Houghton years at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference—a dramaturgically driven designer who sees his role as one who helps a writer own the entire world of the play, and who sees his work as an aid to completing parts of the play’s world that are not represented onstage by actors or other designers.

American mainstream theater is almost entirely created with the very simple goal of telling singular stories with great polish.

In Prague, I watched pieces like Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra, the result of the Flemish choreographer’s six months in a Shaolin temple with a group of monks, learning and creating without having determined in advance what the story was that they’d be telling. The work they made together offered dozens of possible narratives, all of which were brought to life by an interaction between the events, movement, sound, onstage objects and the audience’s imagination. I watched Me Here, You There—a Czech piece created by two set designer/accordionists (Tereza Benešová and Dragan Stojčevski) and a lighting designer (Jan Beneš), in which every member of the audience went on a journey that was guided by the events onstage, but not dictated by them. I learned about works in Poland, where theater groups are creating environmental installations that are encountered by the audience on the streets of their neighborhoods, outside of any theatrical bounds or even scheduled performance times. I watched a couple, first up close, and then from an observation point where I could listen to a broadcast of their dialogue, as they spent an entire day fighting and wandering through the grounds of the Quadrennial.

Actors performing martial arts in a line.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra

I could go on, but my point is that, while these pieces were elegantly made, filled with strong images, crisp performances, and precise detailing, none of them were using their design or their language to tell me what it was I was supposed to be discussing or thinking when I left the theater. They instead excited my senses, and engaged my brain in the moment of the performance. By not delivering a package that answered all questions, they engaged me as an audience member. These pieces required something of me to complete themselves.

Soon after I came back to the States, my wife told me about a children’s theater workshop in which the teacher said, “Live theater is exciting because anything can happen—an actor can forget their lines, or a light can fall from the grid, or someone can forget to make their entrance!” This teacher wasn’t naïve, or uneducated—she has an MFA in theater and education—she just truly had no idea why theater was made in front of an audience and what the audience offers to a production.

So, after a quiet cry in my studio, I realized that my artistic faith demanded that I question why it is that mainstream American theater has such a strong tendency to limit the audience’s role, to feed them a performance without demanding (or even leaving an opening for) any vision on their part, to create work that is only marginally different from what that audience might see at the movies. And, eventually, I began to wonder if the linear nature of traditional American theater-making is partially at fault and if my way of working as an artist isn’t contributing to this problem.

A writer creates a text (possibly nourished by a dramaturg). A director meets with that writer. Maybe they workshop the play with some collaborators at a new play conference or a regional theater, to help clarify the story, the world of the play, the movement—to help focus the work, as it develops. Then into production—a director is hired, (often not the same one from development) and brings that text to a group of designers, each of whom separately focuses on their area of expertise to help create this world. Lastly, that same director moves into a rehearsal room where actors discover how to embody the words and movements.

And I ask myself—is this strict, linear process the reason we create works of theater that dictate and display to our audience, rather than engaging them as an essential part of the theatrical event? In creating works that are so well unified and so supportive, these plays and musicals have been workshopped until all questions are answered, and all focus is pointed to the goal. But have we left any room for the audience to explore on their own? Is it not possible that, by being so dedicated to a singular vision, we’ve created a form of theater that asks nothing of the audience but that they laugh and cry at the moments we’ve designed to so move them?

I know this isn’t the whole story, and, to be frank, I also know that commercial theater is fiscally successful as long as it follows this linear pattern. Indeed, the bravest producer I know (Stephen Hendel) hired us all to create Fela!, and encouraged us to build a work that asked questions rather than answering them; we created a beautifully collaborative work, with a strong leader (Bill T. Jones) at the helm. Fela! never recouped. More traditional musicals that opened alongside us are still running, making their nut each week in this harsh economy. And that’s no small thing. Many American audiences don’t want to do anything demanding at the end of their workday—they want to be entertained. I don’t judge this—indeed, I celebrate it, both as an art form and as a job source, and I believe it can and should continue to happen. Great plays are great things, and I am so very proud of much of the work I’ve done and hope to continue doing in the American theater.

And I know that there are some companies out there that are fully dedicated to working in a different, more collaborative mode—in Philly alone, there’s Pig Iron, New Paradise, Elastic Theater, and Applied Mechanics to name just a few.

But I also wonder if it might be possible for every Off-Broadway and Regional theater company in our country that presents new or contemporary work to commit to taking one “collaborative” risk every season. I’m not dismissing the season selection process in American theater—I know how complicated it is, and how carefully risks and ticket sales are gauged and studied. But, might these companies be willing to give one of their season slots to a group of artists who want to explore an idea without preconceived answers? I wonder if, somewhere in America, we might be able to find a way to keep doing what we do so well, and still give our audiences a chance to put themselves into the play, instead of simply asking them to sit in front of it.

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Hi Valorie –

Thanks for your thoughts & good questions - I’ll try to answer your questions as best as I can – knowing, of course, that all I can do is try and clarify what I've written for you – not necessarily offer you any real answers.

I think you’re right about fear being a major part of our limiting of the audience role – because much of U.S. theater (and Canada is a bit different because they have far stronger government funding of the arts) is dependent on paying the bills. Sadly, one of the amazing thing about people who want to make money is that they often chose the low-risk option, which offers a minimal but reliable income. High risk options sometimes fail, and sometimes succeed spectacularly. I’m asking if it might be possible to attain some balance between the safe and the risky.

Indeed – I do not object a linear story by default; I love some, and others don’t engage me, just like every other form of drama. My questions really do center on the linear mode of theater creation – the commodification, to use your term. I will say, however, that I don’t think that innovative original work can’t be reproduced by other artists – I feel like our challenge there is finding a way to offer good road maps towards reproducing successful collaborations – but that’s a whole ‘nother article. KC Sanchez spoke very eloquently about this topic this past summer at PlayPenn.

My issue with that teacher’s statement was that she offered up the idea of accidents as the sole reason it was exciting to watch live theater – that we should go see plays rather than movies solely for the bizarre, human tendency to rubberneck at a wreck on the side of the road. I lament the notion that the only thing differentiating a play from a movie is the potential for accidents. I long for an interaction between audience and performers that is both integral to the production and to the audience’s experience - a give and take that defies the rigidity of our fourth wall (and let's not forget - that fourth wall is only 150 years old or so. This rigid division of audience from performance is not essential to western theater traditions...)

Regarding the audience we deserve – I fear that this is a self-defeating way of thinking. Most audience members developed their taste and style for theater in a single venue, and if our theaters chose to do bold work, our audiences can deepen their appreciation of it. I’ve watched tiny, brave, regional theatre companies bring their audiences into relationships with writers who are pushing boundaries and kicking down traditional doors everywhere they go. And I’ve watched immensely well endowed theaters play it safe season after season because they believe this is what their audiences want. Any audience can be moved by great productions; its only in the realm of the mediocre that a traditional play is more likely to be successful than an experimental work.

I agree that one means of making these audiences think is to engage them with an interesting and relevant story – it’s a great way, and a way I love. However, I think there are also other ways – ways we’re still inventing, we’re still exploring. The notion that thought and emotion need to happen in a specific order is one with which I disagree – why not have them happen concurrently, or in the inverse? I have watched wonderful plays (some linear, some not) that evoked my emotional responses only during the discussions I had about them afterwards with friends! I have to disagree with the notion that the brain only engages with inconsistencies – so many things start our minds moving; plot issues are certainly amongst them, but they don't hold exclusive domain over getting our mental juices flowing.

And, yes, we’re on the same train when we embrace the notion of dramatic accidents (rather than physical ones onstage), with happenstance. I’m hoping to continue working towards making those serendipitous connections occur in the audience’s brains, while they’re watching – to have their associations with the events onstage bring them, individually, to places for which we theatermakers can never predict.

Hi Robert. I have some comments in response to several very important issues you raise. Sorry for the length.

You ask why mainstream (North) American theatre ('north' because the Canadian scene is not much different) limits the audience role. Perhaps the impulse to limit audiences has to do with a combination of fear, risk aversion, and/or our propensity to bureaucratize any thing that hints of chaos.

You refer to the linear process of dramaturgy, workshop, production, director, designers, rehearsal, but both you and others that refer to "the linear process" seem to use this phrase to describe both the process of getting a play onto the stage, and the process of writing or telling the story or the drama. These are different processes. I don't think linear story-telling is the problem in theatre. I think maybe it may be the red herring,an easy target, a distraction from more basic but more difficult-to-solve issues with the way we do theatre in North America.

Maybe you are actually talking about the commodification of theatre & the theatrical experience. The strict linear process you quoted sounds like stations in a factory assembly line. As makers of theatre, we have a product, we want to sell it & we want (need) to make money. So we break down its production into its generic components; create efficiencies in production by identifying sameness; eliminate or minimize differences, and inefficient, unnecessary or high risk attributes or steps; make it as generic as possible so it's easily reproducible; increase production to maximize returns. But we end up with two opposing goals or systems: mass generic production for profit vs creative innovative original not easily reproducible authentic works of art. How could there not be problems and tension.

I was puzzled by your response to the teacher who talked about accidents that could occur during a production. But I think ? I get it. The whole point of professional theatre is to eliminate or minimize accidents during the production. But to me the teacher was talking to children about the most basic effect of live theatre & the one kids would most likely be familiar with. Underlying her comments, tho, is the idea that live theatre happens in the moment & includes an element of chance. You concluded she didn't understand why theatre was made in front of an audience or what an audience offers to a production. ? Yet I see (& maybe I too am naive) the teacher's comments as speaking directly to the question, why live theatre (instead of a movie, for example)? Live theatre - because it's happening in front of you, & no matter how rehearsed or scripted, there is still or should be the danger & uncertainty of being in the moment, the immediacy of real life, that frenetic energy that makes the players as vulnerable to uncertainty and chance as the audience member. And in the best creative adventures, chance always plays a role, it taps into the unconscious and opens up a window to a broad range of possibilities.

As for the audience, maybe we are getting the audiences we deserve. Maybe we've trained them to expect less, and those who want more no longer go to theatre, so we only attract those who want mindless productions. It seems that we lurch from one extreme to the other, like a drunken sailor on a storm tossed ship. It's either mindless theatre, or theatre of abuse, that berates, baits, mocks, demeans, offends, exploits or assaults the audience - apparently in the belief that this will "make" the audience "think". What will make them "think" is first engaging them with an interesting & relevant story, & then offering them an array of possibilities (unanswered questions), a multitude of reference points & connections, an authentic emotional experience, an understandable plot line. Linear story-telling doesn't preclude knots and offshoots, detours and amless paths into the woods. And thinking, thinking comes after the emotional experience, when the mind asks questions about what occurred. Thinking occurs when the audience member puzzles over apparent inconsistencies and peculiar occurrences, and ponders the small mysteries that slip and then snap into place.

Life flourishes on accidents, incidents, happenstance, serendipitous connections, unexpected concurrences. That kind of drama, that kind of excitement is not compatible with adherence to a rote process aimed at removing the unexpected and inexplicable.

So, I absolutely agree, all questions should NOT be answered. Never. Nada. If all questions can be answered, then the play has been over-processed, or the scope was never large enough in the first place, or enough attention was not/has not been paid to its subtext, its subconscious, its cultural grounding. Or, in other words, the roughness around its edges was not preserved but polished away. Because the thing that excites & enlivens & frightens us, is that very dark roughness around the edges - the very edges of our understanding - where we can't quite go - or where we won't quite allow ourselves to.

I am all about this.

I was once giving a talk with a guest, who called the model of artists on stage telling an audience a story as fascist. That pushed all my buttons. And while the statement is over-simplified and extreme, I think there is a value to looking at the positive flip side of that, which is the development of democracy, or even anarchy in the theatre - where the story is not even possible without the full hearted engaged participation of the audience.

Very intriguing observations, questions and ideas -

But I would contend that audiences in America don't want to be "entertained" they want to be "engaged" - we just haven't sorted out how to engage them yet. The European model offers a lot of great and very tasty ideas in that regard, but the American path will be its own path. I often think that if everyone in America lived a one day drive from Paris or London or Berlin then we'd have different audiences too. I think that can be changed, or grown, or expanded (and I think the idea of bringing in one work per year that is non-traditional in some way is a great start), but I bristle when I hear some of my compatriots hammering on American audiences for not liking some deconstructed, Kabuki Macbeth that is all the rage in Europe. There are some great groups in States – the ones you mention and others all over – that are doing this kind of work in a way that really speaks to its audience and I hope that theaters will look to them for guidance.

Also while I totally agree that the rigid, polished path that many plays tend to take at the bigger, institutional theater is stifling engagement rather than encouraging it, AND I welcome the idea of every theater taking on a different way for working for at least one play per year, my hope would also be that we'd come to understand working with a playwright as a more fully engaged collaborative process. Ultimately I don’t think the problem is that we’re serving the playwrights at the expense of everyone else (and of course the irony is that playwrights don’t feel like they’re being well served by this system either). Of course with so much talk about who owns what part of a production it's hard to pull back from these things – ownership of art is such a classically American trap. I tend to think there is a way to work with new plays that doesn't involve tossing out the idea of having a playwright altogether (but that’s a whole other bag of worms to open).

Thanks for opening up this thorny, necessary and invigoring avenue of discussion!

Nothing specific to add, except that I was utterly delighted by this piece. It reminds me of infinite possibility, which is every artist's heritage.

This is an honest and excellent piece -- very well written and expressed with an unusual and welcome humility (most opinion pieces today, in just about every arena, seem to be presented as if they are incontrovertible messages from on high). I don't know what the "answer" is to the issue or questions Rob raises. The commentators who expressed some reservation on the basis of a culture's right to have the type of theatre it wants make good points. And the performances Rob describes from Eastern Europe, while intriguing, do not make my heart beat faster. But I think what is clear is that mainstream American theatre had traded the excitement of uncertainty for the comfort of technical mastery and narrative clarity, and that while both of those qualities are admirable in isolation, something is lost when they exist at the expense of the kind of excitement than can only come from leaping boldly into the unknown. Too much current theatre today is sadly about as exciting and forgettable as elevator muzak.

I share your concern... but I think I'd like to posit a different solution.

I have come to suspect that the theater we make is often too polished for our audiences. Scripts are buttoned-down too tightly, sets are over-built, lights and costumes too elaborate, actors over-rehearsed. (I can hear a thousand playwrights and designers and actors rebelling already, but bear with me.) What if we intentionally made work that had a few gaps and flaws and chinks in it? What if we made work that was less "museum piece" and more "comfortable couch?" What if we left holes into which an audience could crawl, gaps they could fill? I think that's at least one way in which we'd energize theatergoers.

I also believe that an increasing integration of technology into our work will demand us to consider ways in which audiences can interact, rather than passively receiving a piece of theater. We are only beginning to explore those possibilities; we have a ways to go.

None of this, however, requires us to give up the linear narrative, which is (I believe) still the biggest draw for American audiences (and is thus our responsibility, at some level, to deliver). Not that we shouldn't explore and create in other modes -- of course we should -- but we also shouldn't abandon what's working when we can, instead, just make it work better.

Your essay intrigues me. It is deeply reassuring that in this international age theatre exists somewhere in the world that is fundamentally different from theatre in the US.
I wonder, however, if borrowing East European techniques and forms will create a deeper or richer or even more "live" theatrical experience for American audiences.
This is a question I often pondered during my six months as a US Fulbright Scholar attached to HighFest an International Theatre Festival in Yerevan, Armenia.
What I came to believe is that the richest theatre is that which is most closely tied to a specific culture. I found that forms and artistry which reflect a very particular audience's world view paradoxically transfix an international audience.
However, I agree we can learn a lesson from Eastern European theatre. It's self evident that here in the US we too often develop a script at the expense of developing new "work."
Wouldn't it be great if every major theatre city in the US had a theatre whose "mission" was commission and develop work by designers? At such a theatre, a designer would be commissioned to create a new work, working in tandem with a director and dramaturg. The initial work would be conceptual, spatial, visual and specific. At some point, a writer would be brought in to add a textual element. A composer might be added to the group. Once all the elements were in place, ouille! a theatre piece would be born.
I think with this method, we could create theatre that would be both culturally specific and theatrically groundbreaking.
Robert, thanks for a well-written and thought-provoking blog.


People expect linear narratives like they see in movies, with stars from movies, and preferably with a story they've already seen in a movie.

Plus, I mean let's face it, most of the theater being produced in America with non-linear, multiple narratives also has the disadvantage of being essentially distancing: no real character archetypes to lock on to, no real reason to be at all concerned with the conflicts, and often no real POINT at all other than "what the audience decides the point is" -- a lazy philosophical position from which to create a collaborative art form. It leaves audiences cold.

Once upon a time, theater at least made a stab at puncturing the conscience of the economic and political elite - nowadays, the elite can ignore everything and just focus on the spectacle. That's just fine by them, so that's the theater that gets funded most. Lazy art for lazy people.

I hear you about the movies - its what mainstream theater often looks to as a model. But I think the non-narrative work to which you refer is bad theater; almost all of the devised work on which I've worked is deeply character driven, and carefully crafted. But I do agree - badly made devised work is even more objectionable than badly made scripted work - at least, with the linear script, you've got the storyline to get you through...

The other interesting point a friend raised recently re: movies & more specifically, TV - a huge percentage of those are crediting multiple writers plus the scads of other folks weighing in on story - might that have something to do with their broad appeal?

I deeply appreciate this article.

I feel really fortunate and grateful that Oregon Shakespeare Festival just gave me and my collaborators the chance to do just what you suggest at the end of this piece- they took a risk and allowed us to invite their audience into an experience that demands a different sort of engagement.

This article will help me contextualize some useful ideas for my students this Fall. Thank you.

huge fan of this.

I liken this idea to sporting events where the audience is fully engaged. And I applaud eastern European theatre but I don't think its the model for us out here (and I don't think that is a bad thing). I hope it can be our job to bridge that gap.

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