I love that the call for entries for this blog asked for us to consider “the living relationship between art and audiences.” I’ve seen a lot of art that didn’t need an audience, or didn’t care if it had an audience—and work, also, that seemed to be in service to an audience. I’ve been in audiences that didn’t need the work being presented or respond much more than to judge it. I’ve also been entirely transported as an audience member, brought to a place of joy and despair. The relationship we have to audiences as theater artists covers such a spectrum! But I think it’s great to think of the relationship as living, or alive. I thought I would speak to the creative relationship I have developed as a playwright with Ten Thousand Things Theater’s audiences, and I use the word “creative” even as I recognize that the relationship also feels alive, living, mutable, changeable.
For the past five years or so, I’ve been writing plays for Ten Thousand Things Theater, which was founded 25 years ago by Michelle Hensley. TTT brings its vibrant, high quality productions of big plays that ask complicated questions (Shakespeare, the Greeks, some musicals, Brecht, etc.) to non-traditional audiences in Minnesota, many of whom have never seen theater before. The theater performs in sites where these audiences are or congregate, including community centers, prisons, chemical dependency centers, battered women shelters, immigrant training centers. And then the show will run for a month of performances for a theater-savvy paying audience, who see the play in a big room in a Minneapolis literary center exactly as it’s been performed for non-traditional audiences—seats arranged in a circle around the playing area with all the lights on.
Before you think you know what kind of theater this is, let me assure you that there is not a whiff of condescension or preachiness in the work that the theater does. The political agenda of the theater is quite simply the idea that theater is a wealth that everyone should have access to. (Michelle Hensley speaks beautifully to the theater’s history and premise and politics and power in her new book, called All the Lights On. Read it, it’s great!)
As Hensley planned her seasons she found that she had difficulty finding contemporary plays that worked for audiences with such a range of lived experiences because most contemporary plays are written for traditional audiences, which means they are often centered on middle to upper middle class concerns. So about eight years ago, Hensley, collaborating with Polly Carl at the Playwrights’ Center, offered a national commission opportunity which involved answering this question: “What play would you want to write if you knew everyone was going to be in the audience?”
The question is a simple one but it’s also pretty radical. For one, it puts “everyone” into the audience equation—instead of just traditional theater goers, who tend to be middle to upper middle class white people. The question also shifts the paradigm of the artist as visionary working from an inside spark; it forces the spark to be external and prods a question I think playwrights don’t often enough ask themselves which is the why question? Why this story? Why now? Why would everyone—this incredible range of people from every walk of life—want or need this story? Why this story for all these people?
I’ve now written five plays for the theater, the last three as a Mellon Foundation playwright on staff. And that question about what story I want to tell knowing it’s going to be for “everyone” not only forces my imagination to creatively engage with the audiences that the play will perform for, it has made me a better writer. It puts my imagination in play with the audience from the conception of the play through the writing and revision and rehearsal process. And it’s made my work bigger, more muscular, more complicated, even funnier; it’s made my characters strive and take actions that have real consequences, and struggle with the big questions about the human condition.
This feels important to me—the idea that something happens to our stories if the equation of the audience shifts. If we know that our plays have to reach such a range of people from such different life experiences, it forces our work to have behavioral complexity, characters who are from different classes, and a playing field where no one can be an expert. It forces a blurred background— the play or the story has to happen not in a neighborhood or clinic in Chicago but in a suspended, more “fairy tale” place and time. Adding this big audience to our creative process also begins to change the stylistic language of the piece. Characters don’t sit on couches, if that makes any sense. They make mistakes, they plot revenge, they need hope, and they are part of the human family. They take big actions with big consequences. Most TTT plays have something epic about their scope, and an ability to boil the story down to essentials because the theater produces without lights, no scene changes—the experience is an engaging, muscular ride based on a good story.
For me, the conjuring of these audiences has become an act of both remembering what has connected with audiences in other plays—what made that Brecht or Shakespeare play work?—and an act of imagining how these audiences with their rich and complicated life experiences might find their lives intersecting with my play.
For me, thinking about different audiences, considering how the questions the play asks can engage, surprise and connect with various audiences is essentially a creative act, not an act of demographics. The summoning of these audiences is not unlike writing a character different from who we are. A playwright imagines a character and then leaves room for the actor to come in and occupy the role. And just as we wait for the words we’ve written to be occupied and brought to life by an actor, so too can we watch the play we’ve imagined for audiences be greeted, connected with and made bigger by their presence. It’s an act of empathy, a summoning. An invitation. A place at the table.
Kira Obolensky is a Mellon Foundation Playwright on staff at Ten Thousand Things Theater in Minneapolis.
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.