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Theatre Salon #3

December 18, 2007

Last night saw the third installment in the series of theatre salons organized by Rob Avila (chief theatre critic of the San Francisco Bay Guardian), Mark Jackon (artistic director of Art Street Theatre), Beth Wilmurt (actor) John Wilkins (artistic director of Last Planet Theatre), Kimball Wilkins (producer of Last Planet Theatre) and yours truly.

These events always seem like they're going to be a lot of work. But the energy in the room is always so infectious and the people we invite are so vivacious that the proceedings slide along like a hydraulic system employed by Cirque du Soleil -- it's as if nothing happened at all, yet everything has changed.

The salon we held last night at Last Planet Theatre in downtown San Francisco for around 40 performing arts people from the Bay Area community on the theme of audiences was no exception. The evening whooshed by in a melee of mulled wine, applesauce cake, and great conversation.

What I love best about our theatre salons is the way in which the events seem somewhat structured yet remain decidedly casual. This stems, I think, from mixing food and drink with theatricality.

Here's a quick run-down of how the soiree progressed to give you an idea of what I mean by the winning combination of food and theatricality. First off, we attached a helium-filled balloon to every seat in the theatre to represent audience members. The effect of watching all these bright red, yellow, purple, blue, orange, yellow and green "heads" bobbing about impassively in the semi-darkness was pretty mesmerizing. As soon as our guests arrived, we gave them mulled wine and/or champagne. After a short speech from John, in which he introduced the theme of audiences and what they mean to him, Mark changed the lights and the stage curtains opened with a flourish to display John and Mark's festive stage design. The stage was covered in wintry trees smeared in colorful fairy-lights. We set three long tables laid out in a "C" shape on the stage for our guests to sit at. We pre-laid the tables with food and drink, so that when people found the place-card corresponding to their seats, they could sit down and immediately start chatting, eating and drinking. We encouraged people to move around throughout the evening. We also created a booklet for each participant containing some of our favorite quotes about audiences (My personal favorite is the old Irish proverb: "If you want an audience, start a fight") and encouraged people to share their audience stories and come up with their own quotes.

After about an hour of general nosh and natter, John assembled everyone for a group discussion. People jumped at the opportunity to share their ideas. Here, I would have liked for us to nominate some kind of chairperson to keep the conversation moving along. The theme of audiences is so broad -- it covers from everything from how to manage subscription seasons to the critic's place in the audience to everything in between -- that I felt our group discussion became too stuck on one topic: the role of post-show audience "talk back" sessions.

People obviously felt the need to continue the discussion after John formally called it to a halt. Around 30 guests lingered for another hour or so.

A few questions that came out of the evening for me:

How far can an audience be pushed?
What can be done to install more bars and cafes in or next door to theatres?
Do the quality of the seats matter?
Are there ways to generate more honest/critical audience discussions of performance events?

I feel like we only scratched the surface of the topic really. Hopefully we'll do another salon soon in the new year. I wouldn't mind revisiting the audience question again.


  • When one writes a love letter they, I should hope, know who their audience is: the loved one. Thoughts and feelings are shared in the expressed hope, one would think, of some sort of reciprocal expression. But one must wait.

    "Like desire, the love letter waits for an answer: it implicitly enjoins the other to reply"

    What Roland Barthes suggests, transfers easily to the theatrical event. Who is the theatrical audience if not the loved one? And if the work is not based on an original human passion, like love for instance, what, or who, is the play for? And if the audience were the "loved one" wouldn't we give them as much time and leeway to respond to our "love letter" as possible?

    What works best, with a love letter or a play, is when the audience is at once known to be human and the target of delivery. If it tickles the masses, the masses tickle back. It was for them. And of course the deliverer wants feedback, to be told something, to be touched back somehow, but only publicly if the answer is "Yes, I love you too" For what could be worse than having ones inner most desires rejected in the public square? That is what is at stake.

    Whether it be a love letter or a play, the best creation reveals the creator. To be human is conflict itself. If there is enough human-ness in a play, we know it. It is palpable. Of course that happens as often as poets becoming world leaders. But when it does, it is a grand thing and the audience will find the culprits and do something nice to their heads.

    mr stick

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At December 20, 2007 at 2:18 PM  

  • Those are inspired words, Mr. Stick. I love the love-letter analogy. Though I think you're a bit off the mark when you say "If there is enough human-ness in a play, we know it. It is palpable. Of course that happens as often as poets becoming world leaders." I've been palpably touched by the human-ness of a play more than two or three times in my life.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At December 21, 2007 at 1:04 PM  

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