The audience: Friend, foe, or innocent bystander? Or, questions about the intersection of art and community.

by Leila Buck

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

Post image for The audience:  Friend, foe, or innocent bystander?  Or, questions about the intersection of art and community.

(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

I think a lot about the audience when I write. In fact, I’m thinking about you right now. Well maybe not you specifically, but my ideas of who you might be. What made you start reading this? Do you like me – I mean, my blog post – so far? Will you keep reading? Why or why not? Do you prefer wit or sincerity? (I can do both, I swear…) How much should I base what I say about audiences on what I think may or may not interest you?

I’m also wondering: Will you judge me if I use “they” instead of “it” when referring to the audience? Do I need to prove that I understand it’s a singular noun but really it refers to a group of people and I don’t like talking about people as “it”? And come to think of it, doesn’t that say a lot about our dilemma with audiences (did you see how I snuck in the plural there to avoid the whole it/they thing?): When should we treat our audience as an “it” — an object or recipient of our work, and when a “them” — a group of living, breathing beings whose active participation in that work makes it possible?

Which brings me to the real questions on my mind right now: How do we stay true to our own voice(s) in creating our work, and actively committed to engaging others in that process?
How can we engage not just the audience that comes to our shows, but the wider communities that rarely do?

Is it possible to remain committed to real community engagement without compromising our integrity or needs as professional artists – whatever they may be?
And what do our responses to these questions say about what we do and who we are?
You know – details.

My beliefs about the intersection of art and community are shaped by many years of training and work as a teaching artist based in the philosophies of Augusto Boal. Boal saw and practiced theater as a “rehearsal for revolution”. (Yes, I’m a lefty. Go figure.) I won’t try to describe his many processes here, as they are complex, and many of you, I’m sure, know them well. The elements of his work I think most relevant to this discussion are:
a) the use of theater as a space for exploring different responses to injustices or problems in our daily lives.
b) the role of audience members as “spectACTors” whose participation changes the course of the performance itself and sparks dialogue about how to move that change beyond the theatrical space and into their lives.

My own practice of these ideas has evolved over years of work with students and teachers of all ages in the NY public schools, followed by some burnout, some break time, and more years of teaching as a guest artist in a range of communities from here to Australia and back again. The one thing that has emerged as constant for me through all this is the balance between owning that I have something unique to offer those gathered, and opening to what they have to share with me. And it is that same balance I find myself seeking in my creative work and process.

I began my writing career, as many actors do, by creating and touring a solo performance about my own life. I developed my commitment to the audience as partner through years of performing that work in community settings – universities, conferences, cultural centers –,even one high school auditorium back in the day, complete with bells going off mid-performance as bags were fetched from lockers. Some of my best moments on stage and off occurred in shows and talkbacks from the International School of Beijing to Dickinson, South Dakota’s second annual diversity conference.

My favorite aspect of these experiences was the opportunity to engage directly with the audience both during the show and afterwards. One blessing of performing one’s own work is the chance to sense how your words are landing in the moment, and if you choose to, change them on the spot (much to the board operators’ chagrin) to speak more directly to the energy of the people in the room. After all, in solo performance your only partner out there IS your audience. And when it clicks, that connection is unlike any other. The vulnerability and honesty of sharing a deeply personal experience with a roomful of strangers can be profoundly beautiful, powerful, even – dare I say – spiritual.

To honor this connection, when I began developing my second full-length solo piece, IN THE CROSSING, I would make sure there was a discussion with the audience after every reading or performance. I wanted to know how the play was affecting people and have a chance to dialogue with them.

The story was a very personal one – about my experience with my husband in Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war – a subject about which, not surprisingly, many people have strong opinions. In spite of my best efforts to include a range of voices and viewpoints– in particular the genuine warmth, humor and caring of my Jewish in-laws or Israeli friends — some audience members felt my story to be one-sided, biased, even irresponsible, and asked, suggested, or demanded that I alter it to include perspectives beyond my own. Other audience members, and many friends and colleagues, even those who didn’t necessarily share my political or personal opinions, would tell me to ignore those demands and stick to my own voice: “Just tell your story.”

I soon realized that what I wanted, and needed, to do lay somewhere in between – and that the struggle to find that balance was both the conflict, and the heart, of my play.

So for the better part of three years, I experimented with ways of writing that journey into the piece. I tried representing everything from voices in my head, to angry audience members literally interrupting what I had to say. Many other voices helped me along the way: an incredible team of actors, Liz Frankel, the EWG, countless readings and conversations with generous artists and audiences far and wide, and the constant guidance and insight of my incredible director Shana Gold. After a record number of drafts, we finally settled on a combination that felt like it worked. But even with three other actors now representing multiple viewpoints, I soon realized it was impossible to write something that represented even a fraction of the many perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict– or for that matter, how they had shifted according to what happened in the world that day.

So since my audiences and collaborators had already helped shape so much of the play, I decided to let them do the rest of the work for me. I turned the second act into a staged talkback –partially scripted based on past audience responses –with built-in moments for audience members to ask questions, share responses, and challenge the actors in role, the play itself, and the political and personal issues it raises. The result is part storytelling, part theater, part town hall, and part structured improvisation, and continues to evolve each time we perform. It’s messy, and terrifying, and doesn’t always fully work. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Because it reminds me, every time, of what I love most about what we do – the thing that makes it so unique, and powerful, and bold — The fact that performer and audience are in the same space, at the same time, together, sharing all the discomfort and danger, beauty and possibility of that interaction.

In the end, isn’t it this very relationship with the audience, this sharing of space together, that makes theater what it is? I mean, if a tree falls and no one unwraps a candy…
Yet at times I have felt myself, and other theater artists, take a kind of pride or refuge in the inaccessibility of our art form — The idea that it is a loftier art because it is not a medium for the masses like our more mainstream competitors, film and TV. Or we feel torn between catering too much to our audiences, producing more successful or lucrative but sometimes less fulfilling work — or too little, producing work we love that is not seen as widely, or paid as well.

Recently I’ve been excited to see more and more work experimenting with audiences in new, direct, provocative ways. I’m also inspired by artists and companies who successfully balance their work in professional theatre with an ongoing engagement with students and communities. But there remains a division between works created in community, outside the mainstream theatrical establishment, and those created and performed in more traditional or “professional” settings. And in most work produced outside of community spaces, the audience’s role is primarily in response to a story or experience, rather than actively shaping it.

So it seems then that the larger issue is not whether it is possible to truly engage our audiences in a fulfilling creative process that produces successful work. It’s how to convince both audiences and artists that there is something to be gained in doing so.
And from there, new(ish) questions arise:

Is it possible to approach communities of strangers not as audiences but “spectACTors” — integral parts of the creative process – and create work that will be seen beyond those communities? By doing so might we expand those audiences themselves – forging new alliances with communities that do not otherwise feel connected to what we do?
Could making our audiences more active participants in our creative process help to broaden and deepen not only our connections to communities, but the relevance and immediacy of our entire art form?

I believe the answer to all these questions is yes. The challenge for me is HOW.
That one, I’m still working on.
So in the spirit of collaboration and connection, I’d love to hear your questions, ideas, challenges in response to what I’ve shared. I hope this little post will be just one small part of a larger, ongoing conversation between us and beyond.

Leila Buck is an Arab American writer, performer, and teaching artist who has lived, performed and taught across the U.S., Australia, Europe and the Arab world. Writing highlights: In the Crossing (Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, Lark, Chautauqua Institution, Brooklyn Museum, Culture Project -Women Center Stage. Acting highlights: AFTERMATH (NYTW/International Tour -Drama League nomination); SCORCHED (Wilma -Barrymore Award). Press/media: American Theatre, “Brian Lehrer Live”, WBAI; NY Times; Etching Our Own Image: Voices from the Arab American Art Movement; Four Arab-American Plays-McFarland Press 2013. Member: Emerging Writers Group- Public Theater; Usual Suspect – NYTW. M.A.- NYU. Cultural Envoy- U.S. State Department.