It’s ironic to talk about evolving audiences in a field that sometimes feels behind the larger cultural conversations. As a transgender person, I’ve never felt more relevant in mass media. But when I look at theater I feel invisible. I’ve turned to producing my own web series just to have the conversations I want to have with my audience. Also, that was a lot of fun and I didn’t have to wait for the gears to turn in my favor. Just me and my iPhone, making it happen.
So do we need to evolve audiences or our business model? I don’t run a theater so I can’t begin to understand the enormous pressures our leaders are under. I have a tremendous respect for the art of raising money. But sometimes it seems like artists, institutions, and audiences are siloed. How can we make theaters the central cafes of cities and towns? How can engagement feel immediate, unmediated, real?
Also not news: this field is rife with elitism and struggles to maintain a diverse profile. There are not enough women, gender non-conforming people, or people of color in leadership positions and there are not enough plays by writers from those groups on our stages.
As an (am I still really) emerging artist from an underrepresented group, my stake in this conversation is to consider how theaters might be nimble enough to reflect the urgent questions in mass culture and how theaters themselves can incorporate a wider range of new voices.
Jeff Jones’ 2004 Brooklyn Rail article, “How To Build A Better Mousetrap,” comes to mind. He relays an anecdote about ladies from Westchester getting schooled on the bus-trip down to the city to see The Wooster Group—and then loving the show. Jones proposes more curatorial presence in theater lobbies and brochures – a more dynamic marriage of marketing and dramaturgy. More “Humanities” programming, as Soho Rep and other theaters have begun to incorporate. Props to Raphael Martin who brings in fascinating guest speakers with broad appeal as if he worked at NPR and not a sub-99 seat house below Canal Street.
Combine Soho Rep’s approach to content with About Face Theater’s associate artist program under Bonnie Metzgar. A team of the theater’s artist-family was given a leadership role as a literary committee (and sometimes welcome wagon) in selecting scripts for a works-in-progress festival. Recall how the photographs displayed around Lynn Nottage’s Ruined at MTC brought home the reality of her play’s world. Then, add some bass notes from the Foundry Theater’s many activist programs foregrounding community-artist dialogue. (Yes I’m mashing up MTC and The Foundry!)
Theaters could welcome a diverse crew of emerging artists and activate audiences around current events by empowering those newer artists to lead what we might call “encounters.” These encounters could be almost anything the theater and artist dream up.
Let’s speculate that a renowned transgender playwright is receiving a production at a major Off-Broadway or regional theater. Perhaps together with that artist or with a somewhat-emerging artist (conveniently, I’m available), a theater could organize a wide range of concurrent programming. The already-known lobby displays and program notes may now be too easy to ignore and, let’s face it, aren’t a conversation. What are some modes of dramaturgy that would pop out and make audiences see them with new eyes? Is there a zine stuffed into the program? A hot mess of photocopied images and thoughts from a more emerging artist in tribute to one more established? How about an artist-led field trip to a gallery showing thematically related content? A pre-show picnic in the lobby? A neighborhood tour, a rehearsal demo, a flash-party? Can we let our engagement get a little punk rock?
Yes, you would have to pay artists for these acts of radical hospitality. It’s hard out there for all of us, not just the ambiguously gendered at bewildering career stages, but for you artistic directors, staff, and established artists too. Let’s dismantle the silos and get real about our commitment to diversity by getting to know the artists and audiences around us. By deputizing emerging artists we can create new field leaders (aren’t we all supposed to know how to self-produce now anyway?), while also creating richer and more spontaneous relationships with our communities.
Sylvan Oswald is an assistant professor of playwrting at UCLA and a resident playwright at New Dramatists.
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.