Finding an Audience in the (Cultural?) Desert

by Joya Scott

in Audience & Community Engagement

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(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

I live in the land of bail bonds and pollution sunsets.

One recent night, I stop at Circle K, a gas-station-cum-convenience-store chain that’s on pretty much every other corner here.

I think it’s called “Circle K” because of branding, from back when branding was a thing you did to cows and not a thing you do during a meeting at Starbucks. I wonder if anyone actually still thinks about that, and I think: maybe not (because I sure don’t most of the time)…

And then a guy at the gas pump says “Thanks, pardner,” to a man who’s moved out of his way, and I think:

Well, maybe so.

I buy a six-pack at the aforementioned and tell the cashier I don’t need a bag. “We have to, ma’am. Company policy.”

I say, “OK. It’s just that I’m trying not to… There’s an island of plastic the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific.” (I’m feeling guilty about that, in between other things. As if my guilt could clean oceans…)

The cashier smiles and says, “Yeah, I heard. Look, you can throw it out as soon as you leave, but I have to give it to you.”

Ok.

And I think, surely, this is the place where the end times will begin.

Oh, home on the strange…

—-

Phoenix is not generally what comes to mind when you think “theatre town.”

When I first moved here from New York in 2008, I looked around and thought, oh no… this is suburbia writ large. This is strip malls instead of town squares, and posh golf resorts with elaborate “water features” using water we don’t have, a carceral culture with a literal prison camp just a few minutes from downtown. In essence, it was everything that makes me very, very uncomfortable about the United States, taken to the extreme.

This is also a place where the arts are sidelined and underfunded. Despite the best efforts of our state arts commission, Arizona ranks 50th in per capita state appropriations for the arts and culture. Perhaps as a result, Phoenix’s arts scene seems perpetually on the brink of an adolescent growth spurt, but not quite able to pull it off.

Theatre, especially, seems wildly underrepresented here–Phoenix is the sixth-largest city in the US, but it only has a couple Equity houses, and one of them (Arizona Theatre Company) splits its time between between here and Tucson.[1] There are about three dozen other small companies in the area, but a lot of them are community theatres and many tend towards the sort of palliative programming that may be crowd-pleasing but certainly doesn’t test the limits of our art form. That’s ok; that’s not their goal. But a healthy theatre scene needs all kinds of work, and Phoenix is lacking in both “professional” (i.e. paid) opportunities and cutting-edge art. As a result, audiences here are not exposed very often to challenging theatre. It’s just not a part of the culture.

At least, that’s what I saw when I came here for graduate school at Arizona State University’s young but adventurous MFA program in devised theatre[2]. (Needless to say, I did not expect to stay after I graduated in 2011. In fact, if you’d told me back then that I’d be sitting here writing this in my living room in downtown Phoenix in 2015, I probably would have smacked you.) The housing crisis was at full burn, and empty luxury skyscrapers loomed above my apartment. It felt like the world might end, and if it was going to, it would probably start here, taking with it all the cultural institutions where I once thought I might find a home.

And it is, to a large degree, true. But to refer to Phoenix as a “cultural desert,” as I did at the time, at best captures a partial truth and at worst perpetuates the kind of colonial mindset that has led newcomers to invisibilize the experiences of people native to this land for centuries.

The arts in Phoenix are given terrible short shrift by local institutions and our legislature. But there is a small but vibrant scene of independent artists of all sorts here, making art happen around the edges and below the surface. Many of them have roots in the indigenous or migrant communities or other communities of color, and those cultural voices so long suppressed by the settler mentality are breaking through the drone of consumer culture and white supremacy to offer other visions and other narratives. Moreover, these artists are finding audiences, often through non-traditional means, and getting their work out there. In an interesting turn of events, they are filling the void traditional artistic institutions fill in most cities. This is exciting and so very necessary.

There are also a few scrappy groups of young artists, many of whom came out of ASU’s programs but decided to stay here afterwards against the odds, and do their best to explore the boundaries of theatrical form in this supposed wasteland of artistic expression.[3]

Why are they making work here, despite the challenges, instead of heading to avant-garde meccas like New York? It’s an economic reality that doing experimental performance in NYC or a similar hub is nigh impossible these days unless you have a trust fund or similar resources. (I know; I tried.) But you can still rent raw space in Phoenix for pennies on the dollar. The fertile–that is, cheap–territory of downtown NYC that welcomed artists from our parents’ generation is simply gone, replaced by condos and Cold Stone Creamery®-s.

(Hmm. Maybe NYC is looking more like suburbia all the time?)

—-

I’m the associate artistic director and resident dramaturg at one of these small, scrappy, Phoenix-based ensembles. We’re called Orange Theatre, and we describe ourselves as an experimental multimedia performance collective. We make exactly the kind of work you’d expect–from my initial description above–almost no one here to get.

And yet, you’d be surprised. We’ve developed a small but growing audience base who are surprisingly willing to follow us down the rabbit hole, and a large number of them are first-time (or not-since-that-field-trip-in-sixth-grade) theatregoers. Most of them are under 35, and they’re from relatively diverse backgrounds. They are exactly the type of audiences that traditional theatres are trying so hard to attract.

So how do we get them to come? There are a couple simple things that seem to be working so far.

First, all our tickets are pay-what-you-can. Not just some of them and not just on some nights–every last ticket to every last performance. We know a large subsection of our audience are fellow members of the giant, one-trillion-in-student-debt-ridden millennial precariat, and they simply can’t afford traditional theatre’s ticket prices. Some can, though, and we’ve found that those who can pay more will do so, because it feels good to subsidize someone else who might not be able to afford as much as you. The important part, it seems, is that everyone is welcome. There are no barriers to entry. If you can pay one penny, you’re in. People can get behind that, and they want to support it.

Second, we don’t disguise who we are, and we don’t talk down to our audience. We readily acknowledge and draw upon the long tradition of avant-garde theatre both in the US and abroad. And our strange stage experiments aren’t designed to emotionally manipulate our audience or sell them something. They are, at best, compelling but a bit confounding. They don’t seek to convey meaning so much as question, in both form and content, how[4] meaning can be conveyed, and our audiences may not be avant-garde theatre experts or have a complex vocabulary to describe what they’re seeing, but they dig it, and they come back.

(Frankly, I’d also conjecture that it’s an aesthetic preference derived from that very experience of precarity that many people in my generation share. If we’re given the chance to see art that doesn’t offer easy answers, some of us will go along for the ride, because we’re pissed off at being sold a bill of goods every minute of the day, and we’re suspect of the belief systems that have been propping up our society yet so utterly failed to support us in achieving our hopes and dreams. And we’re comfortable communicating via multiple channels at once, so a multimedia approach doesn’t feel new or especially groundbreaking–it just feels like life.)

So Orange’s audiences come back over and over, probably because of both of the reasons above, but also because we involve them in the process. In mid-2013, we began a long-term development process on a radical interpretation of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding, for which I did a new translation of the text.

We decided early on to take the time we actually needed to develop the piece, however long that might be. Sadly, this is a rare thing in US theatre, where economic conditions force most companies to rehearse in an artificially condensed timeframe. But being able to afford to have our own space and take more time is precisely the advantage of making work in a place like Phoenix.

What started as a six-month process extended to a little over a year as we built the piece in three stages. At each stage, we invited audiences to come see the work-in-progress, and many people did in fact return each time. They told us they enjoyed watching it evolve over the course of the year; rather than feeling repetitive, it was actually part of the fun. I think we became, in their minds, more like a favorite band than a mainstream theatre company. They don’t come see our show because they recognize the show’s title and know what to expect from it; they come because they figure that whatever on earth we’re doing is going to be interesting and challenging, and because we’ve built a relationship with them, involving them in the process of creating art over time.[5]

—–

Now, I don’t mean to paint Phoenix is as some sort of bootstrapper’s utopia where any young person can make a go of it no matter what, despite what right-wingers–oh, hell, any-wingers these days–would have you believe. Even here, Orange Theatre wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a few donors who gave decent sums to get us on our feet. That’s life as an artist within capitalism, and that level of privilege is something that a lot of aspiring young theatre makers across this country just don’t have. They are thus shoved out of the industry or, more often, never allowed to get a foot in the door in the first place. This is a big problem that, along with racial and gender disparities, our field is only just beginning to grapple with in public forums.

I also won’t pretend that selling out Orange’s 50-seat converted warehouse from time to time is the same thing as building an audience base for a larger institution. And I’ll admit we have concerns about our ability to work here in the long run, given our state legislature’s insatiable appetite for cutting both education and arts funding, both of which are vital to a vibrant cultural scene. In part because of this lack of public support for the arts, Phoenix is suffering a major talent drain, and many of our most exciting potential collaborators give in to the lure of cities known as major theatre towns, despite the cost of living there.

Finally, like most emerging arts organizations, we depend on the ensemble donating the vast majority of their time and subsidizing their artistic work with day jobs. Is that sustainable in the long term? I can’t say.

But I will humbly suggest that there is something in our experience here that goes against conventional wisdom in our industry in this country. Though we’re usually loath to admit it, it seems pretty pervasive: the idea that audiences, especially those who have no previous experience with experimental work, can’t handle a challenge. In Orange Theatre’s experience, the opposite is true–people are hungry for it.

Even in the “desert”–among[6] the Wal-Marts and the prison camps, the golf resorts and the evil sheriffs–people want to see weird, ambitious, boundary-challenging performance. And so long as it’s affordable, they will keep showing up, with the kind of loyalty that most traditional theatre companies are desperate to cultivate.

It turns out that perhaps the audience revolution might just start within the art itself, even here.


[1] There are a few additional companies that have Equity LOAs, but in general very few contracts here pay even close to a union wage.

[2] An interesting oasis of experimentation, and perhaps my first clue that there is more here than meets the eye.

[3] Contrary to stereotypes, there’s some real, significant overlap between this group and the former, which is one of the cool things about this town. That same lack of traditional institutions has created diverse alliances among creatives, accomplices in the same struggle to get good work out into the world.

[4] if?

[5] Also because we usually have beer.

[6] /because of?


Joya Scott is a director, dramaturg, and theatre educator. She serves as Associate Artistic Director and Dramaturg at Orange Theatre,  an experimental performance ensemble based in downtown Phoenix. She has helped develop all of Orange’s shows since 2012 and recently completed a new translation of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding for the company’s 2014 productionJoya is also a freelance director and an instructor in Theatre at both Arizona State University and Scottsdale Community College. Before moving to Arizona, she was Co-Artistic Director of an off-off-Broadway company in New York that premiered several new and devised works. Joya received her BA in Theatre from Middlebury College and MFA in Directing from ASU. She is an alum of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and the LaMaMa Umbria International Directors Symposium

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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.