How can I challenge my audience without turning them off?

by Michael Walker

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

How can I challenge my audience without turning them off?

This was the question that ran through my head as I got ready to perform my solo show, BUBBA, at Theatre Tuscaloosa in Tuscaloosa, AL.

I had spent a year modifying and perfecting the script, along the way doing several workshops of the play at Rutgers University and eventually performing in the United Solo Festival in New York City where it won the Best Variety Show award.  The story is about finding out who my father was and uncovering the truth behind his mysterious death.  My family is from Alabama, the third most religious state behind Utah and Mississippi, and one of the most conservative. When my father died, his cause of death remained a mystery.  He had been missing for several days when his body was finally found.  While the official cause of death was ruled a heart attack, I was quite sure it was something else: suicide.  He had been dealing with post-polio, a condition that affects survivors of polio causing muscular atrophy, and he had previously attempted suicide.  Now suicide may be a taboo topic in any part of the United States, but in the Bible belt, it’s extra taboo. As I looked out at the mostly white-Christian-middle-aged audience in attendance, I was frightened at how they would react to a show about telling family secrets, much less suicide.

However, Tina Turley, executive producer of Theatre Tuscaloosa, knew her audience was up for the challenge. I was pleasantly surprised at the standing ovation after the show and to discover how cathartic the play had been for the audience.  Most stayed for the post show discussion.  People shared stories of family members who had struggled with suicide and how seeing a play about the topic gave them an opportunity to discuss suicide without judgment.  One older gentleman said to me after the show, “We all have a Bubba in our lives. Thank you for being brave enough to share yours.”

I am now headed back to Theatre Tuscaloosa to direct their summer musical, Hairspray, and I find myself asking the same question: How can I challenge this audience without turning them off?

Race and integration are hot button issues in Tuscaloosa.  Recently, there have been several national articles criticizing the lack of or absence of integration into the historically all-white sororities and fraternities on campus at the University of Alabama.  But these articles have only further intensified the already entrenched segregation.  In fact the University’s student senate recently voted down a resolution supporting racial integration of fraternities and sororities on campus.

In addition, the city of Tuscaloosa is experiencing the re-segregation of many of its schools.  According to a recent article by Nikole Hannah-Jones at propublica.org, “in Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.”  In 2000, a federal judge released Tuscaloosa City Schools from the court-ordered desegregation mandate and since then, Tuscaloosa’s schools have become more and more segregated.

Rather than ignore or shy away from plays that might address these issues, Theatre Tuscaloosa has chosen to challenge their audiences again.  Hairspray could easily be tossed aside as a fluffy musical about a chubby girl trying to get on television with hummable pop songs.  But further inspection shows that at the heart of the musical are the issues of acceptance and equality, a message that should be delivered in Tuscaloosa.

Will this message be heard?  As director, I plan to make sure that message will be at the forefront of our production.  I plan to use this production of Hairspray to educate the artists involved in the production and the community about the Alabama’s civil rights past and inspire them to create a brighter future.  After that, it’s up to the audiences at Theatre Tuscaloosa.  There has been a huge push to encourage more diversity and change the faces of the audiences at Theatre Tuscaloosa so that they more accurately reflect the community as a whole. I look forward to the post-show discussions about race and integration and I hope to continue challenging audiences.


Michael is an actor/writer/director originally from Huntsville, Alabama. He was recently named a finalist for the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony Residency and is a recipient of the Wildacres Playwriting Residency. His solo show BUBBA has been featured on NPR’s Tales From the South, the Planet Connections Festivity, Theater Tuscaloosa and the United Solo Festival where it was the recipient of the Best Variety Show. Some of his stage appearances include Horton in the national tour of Seussical and as Edna Turnblad in the national tour of Hairspray. He has also worked in television and film appearing in Boardwalk Empire, Dirty Little Secrets, and the feature film Non-Stop starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore. Visit him online at www.michaelthomaswalker.com.

  • lord equalknox

    thank you . You Rock in writing ,expression and Reality. ” Break It ” in Tuscaloosa…. I know Hairspray will play well there . you cannot stop the beat no matter the locale

  • Kristen Adele

    Yes, Michael! Your drive to create lasting impact with your work is inspiring. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from visual artist, Elizabeth Catlett, “Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.” The liberation you are offering your cast and audience members is priceless. Keep up the good work!

  • Melba LaRose

    Be careful. Be safe.