For Love of the Ceremony: Thoughts on Audiences and New Play Festivals

by Nathan Davis

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.)

1) What if, in the not-so-distant future, every region of the U.S. were to have a high-profile, Spring festival similar to Humana, wherein several brand new plays are fully produced in repertory? Can we only handle one major festival like this? Would multiple festivals diminish each other’s importance? Or would they actually help each other? I’d like to believe the latter is more probable.

And what might this do for our audiences? Those we already have and those we want to attract?

2) The theatre is a place of ceremony.

All too often, our discourse around what is or is not “entertaining” and/or “engaging” is both too complex and too reductive. We look at potential audiences and how to reach them through the ever-shifting lens of trend and try to figure out what will appeal to them. But I wonder if we risk losing sight of the fact that people always have and always will gather in public (and pay admission, if they’re able) in order to collectively experience the familiar. That doesn’t mean they don’t also want to be surprised. It doesn’t mean they aren’t open to new experiences. It doesn’t mean they’re unsophisticated. It means they want to know their part in the ceremony of the event.

How can we make the ceremony of seeing a play more familiar to a wider range of people without alienating those who are loyal to it as is?

3) Last month I was in LA for opening weekend of my play Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea at Skylight Theatre. Just before the lights dimmed for the Sunday matinee, a couple came in with food. When I say “food” I don’t mean packages of candy. I mean carry out platters of burgers and fries from the restaurant around the corner. They sat in the front row of the intimate theater, inches away from the playing space, and watched and ate. I was very happy about this. Mainly because nobody stopped them and confiscated their meal and nobody glared at them or told them to put it away. I wondered what it would be like if they were in a larger, fancier theater. Would someone have stopped them? Would they even feel comfortable in the lobby? Given the choice between eating lunch and seeing the show, would they have chosen lunch? It’s not that I think eating a burger and fries while watching a play is inherently virtuous. It’s that if we do want to “diversify” our audiences we need to expect them to participate in ways that are familiar to them. Inappropriate behavior in a theatre is a surefire sign that the people we say we want in the audience are, in fact, there. It was a great thing to observe that a) this couple was not “theater savvy” and b) they were comfortable.

4) Doesn’t a new play festival, by its nature, solve (or at least begin to solve) the problem of audience expectations for an art form that so often challenges, thwarts, stretches and sometimes intentionally subverts them? Isn’t it the perfect place for people of all backgrounds and ages to come with a relatively clean slate? To create a unique culture then and there?

When you come as an audience member to a new play festival your role in the ceremony is heightened and the context for any one show you see is broadened. You anticipate adventure over and above perfection. You come expecting to compare and contrast. To gossip and debate. To experience and celebrate something new. (To be fair, new play festivals don’t hold a monopoly on these sentiments. But they do tend to concentrate and increase them.) Shouldn’t we take every opportunity available to create that rarified atmosphere in our theatres? And couldn’t that dramatically improve the health of our art and industry?

5) Almost reflexively, we put plays in the same category with television and film rather than, say, haunted houses and basketball games. This seems to make sense. But in TV and film there is a separation between the world of the story and the world of the observer. There is a one-way exchange of energy. The observer only receives and cannot give. The performers have no immediate awareness of their audience. This is the opposite of a play (or a sporting event or a haunted house). And this is a hugely important distinction. Yet the presumption that seeing a play is essentially analogous to going to the movies persists. And it seeps into our thinking when it comes to how we operate (as artists, producers and institutions) and it effects how we go about trying to attract audiences. And it endangers the ceremony. And the ceremony is the thing that, in the end, must attract audiences.

6) When trying to create a buzz for a film the selling points must focus on: the story itself (which is why sequels, franchise revivals, well-known comic books, best-selling novels, etc. are safe bets for Hollywood), celebrities or personalities involved, critical acclaim, social/political relevance, and so on. These are also our main selling points in the theatre, although we sometimes add “message” or “lesson” to the equation. The implication being that what makes the theatre unique is that you come away having learned something tangible from the experience.

It would be ridiculous to deny the importance of these factors in attracting audiences for plays. They weren’t pulled out of thin air. They are, to some extent, proven methods. But are they fundamental? What of the inherent attraction, excitement and value of being a participant in the ceremony of a play?

I don’t have to know anything about the plays or the artists involved in them to want to go to the Humana Festival. I want to be there because it’s the Humana Festival of New American Plays. If possible I want to see several plays on the same day. I’m not going merely to “see a show”. I’m going to be part of a cultural event.

7) Much work is being done, and much more remains, to make our theatres and our audiences more demographically reflective of society as a whole. Parallel to that necessary and urgent task, we need to build a framework for the creation of brand new cultures and perspectives. We will only be vital to the ever evolving cultural fabric to the extent that we become a place for artists and visionaries and dreamers of all backgrounds to flock to when they want to bring something fresh into the world. How do we get there?

In order to navigate this road together we will need to start to collectively envision the theatre we are trying to create. What is the ceremony of the theatre of the future? And how can we plant its seeds here and now? And might those seeds be our new play festivals of all types and sizes? Are we nourishing them enough? Do we need to plant more? Do they have enough light?


Nathan Alan Davis’ play Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea receives a 2015 NNPN Rolling World Premiere with productions at Skylight Theatre (Los Angeles), Phoenix Theatre (Indianapolis), Theater Alliance (DC), Cleveland Public Theatre and Oregon Contemporary Theatre.  Dontrell was also produced at the 2014 Source Festival and is currently a finalist for the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award. Other plays include The Wind and the Breeze (Lorraine Hansberry Award), which is a selection of the 2015 New Harmony Project and The Art of Bowing (IU Bloomington At First Sight Festival, 2014), which was nominated for the L. Arnold Weissberger Award. His plays have also been produced, presented or developed at Baltimore Center Stage, the Kennedy Center, Chicago Dramatists and San Diego Rep. Nathan is currently a Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellow at Juilliard. He has been a Jerome Fellowship finalist and a Heideman Award finalist. As an actor formerly based in Chicago his performance credits include Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf, among others.  He received his MFA in Playwriting from Indiana University in 2014 and holds a BFA in Acting from the University of Illinois.

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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.

  • Pete Miller

    As someone who was privileged to see a production of Dontrell . . . at the Source festival last summer I know you can write a great play as well as a great thought piece on the art form. I’m convinced that more collaboration among companies of all sizes and in all styles is key to opening up the experience of playgoing to a wider population. Your invocation of sports resonates for me. Almost anyone working to get people out of their homes to pay attention to the same thing happening live is a fellow traveler.