As a playwright working on a play with the artistic department of theaters, I am often asked to talk with the education department and the audience engagement department. In my mind those three departments are trying to achieve the same thing; grow audiences that are engaged with and enlightened by the art. However the truth is those departments often work in columns of separate funding, strategies and organizational structures that keep them from fully supporting the goal. As an artist I am all about that goal. I love it. I want to be a part of it. When I have felt like the departments are not clear on how to move forward around my play, I have gone into communities on my own, found new audiences and educational partners then brought them to the theater.
I realize not all playwrights are interested in that kind of one on one audience building, but I encourage you to ask your artists because you will be surprised at how many are not only willing but excited to do that work. A lot of us have been brought up in an “artist as activist” world. We want to touch community and be of service. We are also creative people and have ideas for how to bring audience and art together in new ways. I am working on a project now that brings together my passion for all of these things and offer it as one example of many that your artists will bring to you.
Cornerstone commissioned me to write a play for their Hunger Cycle. I was assigned a topic that the ensemble wanted to explore. That topic ended up being covered in an earlier play, so they asked me what I was interested in. I told them, and they have been completely supportive of my dream. My play, Urban Rez, is a multi-generational immersive experience. The piece has been built from two years of story circles with the Native American community of the Los Angeles Basin.
The final experience will utilize professional and community actors in the Cornerstone tradition. However the difference is that I am crafting a piece that equalizes script, audience engagement and education. The experience is set in a fair where there will be booths that are scripted characters with intersecting stories mixed with booths of actual educators, culture bearers, elders and community service organizations. The non-scripted booths do and say their own thing, completely without my input as playwright.
They do and say their own thing, completely without my input as playwright. My goal is that an audience member can come to the fair, never encounter a word of my script and have a fantastic time. This can happen because the engagement and education booths are so compelling and truthful that they stand on their own, not watered down by separate activities around the “main event” of art. All three elements work together seamlessly because they all come from one vision, not separate departments.
Even in a company as fluid as Cornerstone, it has taken some work to reframe what is considered a “theatrical experience” in everyone’s mind. The desire to guide audience to script is strong. However, this piece trusts that truth is stronger than or at least equal to fiction. I’m not saying this is what every theater should be doing or that I’ll ever do it again. But it’s another idea that I believe will engage, educate and build a multi-generational audience in an exciting way. Then they tell me innovative ideas I’d love to see. As I’ve talked to fellow artists about this project they immediately say “I’ve always wanted to ___”. “My dream project is ___”. And they tell me innovative ideas I’d love to see. So I encourage you to ask your artists. They are as excited about this work as you are, maybe more.
Larissa Fasthorse is a playwright, choreographer, sometimes actor and new director as well as a board member for TCG. You can sort it all out at hoganhorsestudio.com
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.