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The Roar Of The Crowd

December 20, 2007

Some interesting email flying backwards and forwards for the past couple of days since the last Theatre Salon on the theme of audiences.

One question which prompted discussion was the one regarding how far audiences can be pushed.

A director friend of mine, who was unable to attend this Salon (but was at the previous two), weighed in with the following thoughts:

She said:

How far can you push an audience is an interesting question and it's so relative. Subject matter (which is infinite), time, physical comfort, engagement. Those are all such different ideas and I know I personally can be pushed pretty far in terms of subject matter and engagement (ie fucking with my perception) but only for good reason. Then again, if you don't have a good reason why are you doing this in the first place?

However, as I sat through what I considered cacophonous garbage last night at a theatre I felt it pushed my physical comfort level beyond what I can deal with. However, a loud or strident sound or soundscape in a show is fine, if it makes sense and serves the project. So I'm not sure what I'm saying except that for me as an audience member there doesn't seem to be a way to answer that question for myself. Maybe push me as far as you want as long as it's good, because if you miss the mark it's usually f***ing hateful and arbitrarily obnoxious. And yet, what I consider garbage had other people bobbing their heads along to (which I found completely bizarre).

So who do you program for and do you decide in advance who your audience is? And is it a goal to push your audience?

I said:

I think a theatre maker needs to know his/her audience enough to push them as far as they will go. But all steps in this direction must serve the project. I hate gratuitous "let's shock the audience" stuff.

She said:

Yes, but if you're going for a diverse audience with varying limits, which one takes priority? Both in terms of audience and limit? Do you cater to the least common element or the greatest or to the middle? Catering to the least will limit you to safer work, catering to the other edge will potentially alienate many (causing people to think you're elitist, or at least non-populist, which is not always preferable) and the middle, well, is the middle. It's like living in the suburbs.

What may push one person in terms of subject may push another for physical comfort, may not push a third at all. Or do you say forget the audience altogether, I'm doing this for me and they can come if they like it? Because if you're not pushing yourself as an artist than it's all for naught anyway and who cares if you're pushing your audience. I think I mean that.

So maybe the question is what does it mean to take a risk in the first place?

I said:

Ultimately, I think the artist has to push herself/himself before anything else and create work that he/she wants to make. But at the same time, I hate art that simply says "fuck 'em" to the
audience -- that's so self-involved that it might as well be presented as an "invitation only performance" in front of the artist's bedroom mirror. So I guess what I'm saying is that it's a delicate balance. I certainly don't think that it's possible to create work that will appeal to an entire audience -- even if it's a very carefully segmented one. But one hopes that with every new work one presents, one gains more than one loses.

That was the end of our conversation. We were both procrastinating and had to get back to work. But I think the discussion will continue at a later date.

Here's a snippet of another post-Salon email conversation, this time between fellow Salon organizer John and one of the guests:


It occurred to me after getting home on Monday night that the black-oriented
theatre has a VERY different relation with the audience than the "Mainstream"
theatre does -- be it big rep houses, mid-size or underground. I've been in a
couple of plays in the "black" theatre and it's really jarring at first to experience an audience that is unrestrained in jeering and whistling characters they don't like. After that, it's
kinda fun.


There are sub-audiences throughout the Bay Area that come to support
(in the same way that family and friends do, although in a much more
expansive way) the very notion of representation. This is where ethnic
or special interest theater has a distinct marketing advantage over art
theater. There is a community who will come out and support no matter
what -- just like some of our friends and some of our families. This
seems to me also true of some gay theater, The Golden Girls in drag.
Here's the bigger question. Why don't art theaters, in general, seem
representative to the general population?

I'm going to give a quick answer, if anyone cares. One of the things
that disturbed me during the general discussion was the notion of
American audiences being stupid, lazy, and apparently their greatest
crime, not European. As usual, the best quips come twenty-four hours
late, but the San Francisco Bay Area hardly qualifies as a backwards
region. There are more advanced degrees here per capita than almost
anywhere in the country. It is in fact very much a European city and
not the stereotype of Wal-Mart hicks that was traveling around the
salon -- now I don't even believe the Wal-Mart hicks who watch too much
television version of American, but that is certainly not true here.

Okay, but you're waiting for the answer and the answer is the decline
of a striving middle class. The middle class creates community and the
desire for representation. It is the economic class most likely to be
involved in civic issues, precisely because they both have the time but
cannot buy their way out of community like the rich. Their investment
creates the ground from which support for the arts and understanding
spring. If theater developed because of urbanization and thrives under
urban conditions, the middle class is the revolutionary class, not
always in terms of taste, but in their desire to support any and all
representations of the communities they live in. It is a debate and
fight they have a truly vested interest.

John concluded his email by saying that "the real action was on the margins, which where it might always be." I think this is a necessary and important aspect of the Salon format. The central conversation would probably never be as stimulating as the dozens of smaller dialogues that took place in the room on Monday night and continue to bounce about the cyberwaves.

That's why I think it's important to capture those marginal bits for posterity. Which is why I'm writing this blog post.


  • Regarding pushing an audience "as far as they will go," that would mean (a) having to know how far they will go, which is a matter of getting to know ones audience over time, and (b) never actually stretching them, in which case you're really not pushing much of anything, since if you only push them as far as they will go and no further, you're still within the comfort zone. Maybe an audience needs to be pushed beyond their perceived limits, where, perhaps, they might find they can actually survive out there and even get something out of it. Maybe they'll like it. Maybe they'll feel free. Maybe they'll curl up in a ball and whisper. Maybe they'll get mad. But in any event something will happen and the show will likely sell out, as the much debated MERCHANT OF VENICE at Cal Shakes recently did. -- Mark J

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 20, 2007 at 7:47 PM  

  • PUBLIC OPINION: This method does not achieve results because two people generally have little in common, three people have even less, ten will have almost nothing, and what a hundred people have in common is something so negligible that it may be able to sell certain things, but it can certainly not contribute anything creative.

    By definition, creativity is the emergence of something which does not exist. And marketing, at least in its narrowest and crudest form, consists entirely of trying to pinpoint that which already exists therefore it is worth nothing.


    I have the above taped
    to my locking file cabinet
    reflecting my head.

    mr stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 21, 2007 at 5:44 AM  

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