A few weeks ago, I was talking to Suzanne Chaundy for my conversation series when I made a statement that was blatantly untrue. I was talking about the difficulty of working with and exceeding the audience’s expectations of opera: “More so than in theatre, audiences arrive with an image – an expected aesthetic – an idea of What Opera Is. How do you cope with that?” I am paraphrasing. It didn’t make the final cut for the blog and I am writing this on a borrowed laptop so I can’t go back and check the extended transcript. The point is I said this wasn’t an issue for theatre and as the words left my mouth I realised this was a lie.
Today, a neighbour bemoaned the lack of arts funding in comparison to sports. She was doing this in solidarity with me and I appreciated it but I found myself saying this in response:
I sort of understand it. We inside theatre know what theatre can be and know the value of it but so many people never see live performance. The image they have in their head is probably Laurence Olivier, declaiming Shakespeare to a model skull fifty years and a globe away. They don’t see how that could ever be relevant let alone entertaining. They don’t see how something that archaic and elitist could ever justify funding. I think the arts needs a re-branding campaign to explain to the general public why we are worth investing both time and money in; that we are not just making work for a select group, educated in decrypting the mysterious noises we make, but that we have something to offer to Australia as a whole.
I have touched on this before: who makes up an audience? What a rare find a First Time Theatre Goer is. Roderick Poole (playwright, composer, performer and founder of street theatre company, Strange Fruit) summed it up beautifully in an email exchange:
“I left working in the theatre about 20 years ago when I looked around and saw what a huge proportion of the audience was made up of my friends, colleagues and family. I decided to take up street theatre – taking the mountain to Muhammad.
The GP is scared stiff of the theatre. A lot is to do with etiquette. How to dress? How to behave?”
This is a problem. A massive one. But right now it doesn’t feel insurmountable. A few weeks ago I had a beautiful conversation with Robert Reid and Sayraphim Lothian (which I’ll be transcribing and posting in the next few days) about why they make art that is joyous and accessible; art that you don’t need to study before experiencing; art that sometimes has no purpose but to make the day brighter for the single person who experiences the work. Listening to them helped solidify many thoughts that had been bubbling away in my head for some time.
I think that in the arts community we can be quick to dismiss things that are meek in their intellectual aspirations. Music theatre is a wonderful example of this. How many of us have rolled our eyes at the thought of yet another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta being staged? A Cameron Mackintosh? Who needs another Les Mis? Well, clearly the audience does because they keep buying tickets enough to justify another remount. This is art that is relatable, not isolating; art that asks you to experience on a purely emotional level rather than an academic one.
Now this is a tangent but it is an interesting one so I’m going to run with it: I read a paper this year by Caroline Heim (and again, I’m not in my own home so I can’t chase down my notes) which stated that the traditional post-show forum dis-empowers the audience because it sets up the artist as expert and the audience as pupils. It practically invites the time honoured ‘how do you learn all those lines?’ questions. ‘What’s it like working with So-and-so?’ It exaggerates rather than narrows the divide between audience and artist. We become the ones with the answers and they, the note takers. The paper suggests that a forum should be replaced by a conversation in which the theatre company seeks to learn from their audience. They might kick off the session by asking something as simple as ‘what did you say to your friend when the lights came up?’ and go from there. Allowing themselves to be led by the group and elevating them in that moment from spectator to collaborator.
These are all wonderful thoughts for big, established companies (and it got me ridiculously excited when I read it) but the majority of the conversations that happen, happen in foyers and at bars. This is where we as individual theatre makers can really make a difference to a newcomer’s experience of a night.
I think it is important to be confident talking about negative responses to shows and talking about them in such a way that the other person does not feel that the night was a failure because they didn’t enjoy the art they spent money on.
‘What did you think? … Oh it wasn’t your thing? … Yes I did enjoy it. Quite a lot! … Don’t be sorry! I want to hear about your response. What didn’t work for you?’ And then ‘what was the last thing you enjoyed in a theatre?’
I think this last question, or something like it, might be the crucial one. Once you’ve talked about what didn’t work, ask about the last thing that did work for that person and then suggest a show, an artist or a company that they should check out. It is hard to convey tone here and I am fully aware of how patronising and formulaic this could sound but this is the thing: we need to become advocates for our industry. No one will do it for us. We are our spokespeople. Seek to pair a hesitant theatre-goer with a work that they will enjoy. Something that will make them want to return for more. To spread the word. To start taking some risks. To become part of our community.
I am not advocating an intellectual dampening of our industry. I fucking love the work that I am seeing at the moment because it is sophisticated, demanding and requires interrogation. I am not writing this to tell you to drop your current project and stage Mama Mia instead. Rather, what I want to suggest is this:
Make 2014 the year that you look around you in the audience. Make it the year in which you critically ask yourself ‘how many people do I know here?’ Make it the year that you seek out strangers in the crowd, turn to them at interval, catch them at the bar or in the line for the toilet and ask what they thought. Make it the year in which you genuinely want to know someone else’s opinion, not so that you can correct or educate them, but so that you can both share in each other’s experiencing of the work. Make it a year in which you empower your audience.