(This essay was written for the 2015 TCG Circle Audience Revolution blog salon after the 2015 TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening March 25-27, 2015 in Kansas City.)
Tell me what you want.
Tell me what you want so that I can get what I want
I will make something
For your want
And you will want for nothing
You see, I am a text-builder and theatre-maker
I am a citizen and sometimes I am a citizen-spectator
And I have been trained to ask myself what characters want all the time
And as such, am told, that I am also trained to ask you
What you want
So that, in effect, I can give it to you
It is nine o’clock on a Saturday. I am staring out the window of a hotel room in Kansas City, Missouri. I have a non-view, as it were, of another building, one that is under construction. A sign hangs from the side of the building announcing “Luxury Condominiums Soon.” I wonder who will buy these condos, and who will live there in this, the power and light district, which is hauntingly sleepy and desolate during the day and comes to fervent yet brief life late night on Fridays and Saturdays.
There is heavy construction down Main Street. It has been going on for a year, so I am told by the locals. A street trolley is being put in. It will be amazing, once it is in place, but for now, there is the incessant battering noise of hammers and drilling, and trucks sweeping debris snail-like down the street.
Bars upon bars line the short thoroughfare that leads to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and further east there are blocks and blocks of empty storefronts and equally empty streets where the occasional homeless person is spotted lugging their belongings.
I am in the Midwest. The heartland. There is money here, I am told. There are spanking new buildings and investments igniting the life of this city. But there is this other side too. The one that speaks of poverty and neglect and working class folk running to take the bus at the end of their work shift, and of those barely making ends meet eyeing the dollar-store rack at the local drugstore for some “cheap eats.” Like many American cities, especially ones that have gone through bust-and-boom spurts over the years, it is one of stark contrasts, magnified by stretches of highway that cut across neighborhoods, divide communities, and segregate economies. This is a city of cars and bbq, blues and baseball, and where more than 35, 000 tickets have been sold for an international soccer match between Mexico and Paraguay at Arrowhead Stadium.
It is also a city where some of us in the field, in this struggling and beautiful field of theatre-making and producing, have been talking for a few days about how we can engage with audiences and revitalize our theatres and art work. Nothing new here, I suppose, other than the fact that an inevitable dichotomy is eternally at play in such discussions, one that demands in a culture that is already infinitely demanding (to quote Simon Critchley), that practitioners and administrators ask their audiences what they want and in turn, be able to give it to them.
But what do audiences want?
A producer wisely remarks in one of the discussion sessions over these last few days in Kansas City that when a practitioner with whom she was working once asked a group of homeless people living in a tent village in one of our American cities about what kind of theatre they most wanted to see, the answer was not one that represented their own misfortune, but rather “Dreamgirls” instead. Give me the glitter and magic and spectacle, please, and not mere verisimilitude of what my own life is like!
Who is our audience, then?
Who do we think is our audience?
And is there such a thing as a monolithic body called the audience in the first place?
So, I make a little art sometimes. I never know who is going to be in the audience. I do hope that my friends and colleagues will show up. But honestly, I don’t know who will walk in. Well, actually, I do a little. That is to say, depending on where I am doing my work, the ticket prices will vary. At some venues it is in the $20 USD and under range. At others, it is more, though hardly ever above $65. In my experience, anyway (both inside and outside the USA).
If the ticket price is more, then likely, those that can afford or have saved up to afford to buy a ticket, will come. If it is less, then the chances are that the audience will be comprised of folks who either wandered in out of curiosity, came with friends, are students, or are in the starving class, or what we often refer to as the “artist class,” in this country. No news here. But it bears repeating, I suppose, that there is such a thing as an “artist class” in these united states and that often this is the economic class that represents either the highest of the high incomes (think actor celebrities, CEOS of major theatres and entertainment companies and the like) and the lowest of low incomes (think artists living paycheck to no check, on meager grants, occasional commissions, day jobs and twelve part-time jobs to make one job).
I start with the economic divide first, because I do think that ticket prices are an issue. We know already that movie theatres are closing around the country precisely for the same reason. If you can download or stream a film made by first-class filmmakers and performers for less than the cost of one movie ticket, why bother seeing the movie on the big screen?
Although theatre is one of the live arts, and therefore not eminently reproducible (although National Theatre Live broadcasts in cinemas and Digital Theatre UK’s downloads and rentals offer the pleasures of high-quality recordings of live events), the price of admission – note the weighty undertow of the phrase – does matter. We can talk about theatre and democracy all we like but the fact is that if a ticket for a show costs $80 to 150, then, you know, it’s not quite a democratic enterprise.
So, who is it for? And what does it mean?
If you, say, make a play about the poor, but charge $100 for a ticket at a commercial venue, then who is coming to see the work? I would hazard that poor folk are not going to come on a day-to-day basis. After all, $100 plus $100 adds up pretty quickly. And are not easily come by when you have bills, rent, mortgage, insurance, and other of the Western world’s basic life amenities to pay. Therefore, as an artist you run the risk of putting the poor “on display” for the upper classes.
Okay, we all know about empathy. And yes, theatre is an abstract form. It is not inherently mimetic. All kinds of stories should and can engage an audience. And do. We can imagine ourselves kings, queens, laundry workers, salesmen, office temps, barflies, punk rockers and more. Theatre asks us to see ourselves in all of our flaws and frailties. For rich and poor and those in-between. In its imagined commonwealth, theatre teaches us about commonwealth – we are ALL in this together.
But the price of admission in our capitalist theatre system – one that will likely not change anytime soon, given that we are, after all, in a late capitalist society – does play a factor in who shows up, who gets to wander in and who even gets to see the work being made under the glare of the bright lights. You can ask an audience to be with you, to engage with you, but if they can’t afford to get through the door or no-door (depending on the kind of theatre you are making) then, your request may go unanswered, however hard you may try.
I am a Smiths fan. Still. Yes. I know they broke up a long time ago. But I still love those songs and Morrissey’s mad-yearning croon of a voice. As a practitioner, I am not going to lie. Please Please Please Let me Get What I Want is a mantra of sorts. I mean, let’s face it, making art is in part about putting your vision out there. It takes a certain amount of healthy arrogance to even think anyone might wish to engage with your vision in the first place. And yes, part of that vision has to do with intoning a bit of mad yearning desire into the act of making and later, production, if it even gets that far. I face the page and ask it to tell me what it wants, which usually means that characters will show up and do their telling. In other words, I may face the page demanding vision, but the only way to realize vision is to be open to what it may be. You can dictate all you want, but if the page says, write this! And it’s burning hot and true, and if you believe in truth-telling in your theatre, then, you know, you step out of the way, and let the work make “itself.” In reality, of course, you’re the text-builder or playwright and you likely know a thing or two about the form called a play, just as a shipwright may know a thing or two about ships, and while the work may be telling you what it wants, you are in there somewhere making it happen. Another part of you is calling through the act of the demand, through the pleading Please Please Please… to get to this thing called art that you wish to share in some way with your fellow citizens.
When I am making art, I am not necessarily thinking about the audience all the time. I am my first audience. Usually a trusted circle of colleagues are my second audience of readers, and then actors and so on. The imaginary audience – the public of whom Federico Garcia Lorca wrote about in his last “unfinished” play – is waiting in the stalls, diving under their seats, clamoring against the madness on stage, imagining themselves Romeo and Juliet, tragedy’s apprentices, and heaven knows what else.
I am interested in pleasure. In an audience enjoying the work. I think pleasure and sensuality sometimes get short shrift in our discussions of theatre-making. But it is a deep-seated thing. To be in the presence of something that gives pleasure, and that makes you feel sensual and electric. Or simply: makes you feel alive. What did Sondheim say in Company? “Being Alive?”
It is what live art does. At its core. It is live. It is about being alive. It is about the human condition. It is an experience that can do many things – offend, provoke, alienate, invite, teach, make you think, amuse, entertain, illuminate, reflect – but ultimately, remind you of the bristling sensation of being awake and alive on the planet. The best theatre does this. We know this. We have known this for a long, long time.
And yet, we ask ourselves, what do our audiences want?
Do all the market research you wish, but what they want is to be reminded that they are human in the most electric, visceral, witty, intelligent, unexpected manner possible. Sometimes with words and stage pictures. Sometimes with no words. Sometimes with music or dance or puppets. The WHAT isn’t the thing. The play’s the thing. And with it, the responsibility to speak truth to power. Because what does theatre do? It says people have power. The power to tell stories, move through the world, and perhaps, yes, do good. Not all plays shows us at our best. But that is the point too. To make us see when we behave less well with others, when we speak hatred, violence and rage. If all characters in theatre were decent and behaved well, there would be no theatre. If we were are well-behaved at theatre in their shiny clean enterprises of culture, there would be no theatre.
Listen, theatre is dirty. It is messy. Give me filth, it says. It stirs up the weird shit, the uncomfortable stuff within us, and the stuff we would rather not face. It asks us to embrace tenderness and violence at one and the same. It is cruel and beautiful and not merely a forum for whatever is the latest issue on the daily broadsheet. It cuts deeper than that because it has to do with desire. And desire, the stuff we traffic in, court, wrestle with in theatre is bloody difficult. You can’t data-manage it. You cannot compartmentalize it. You can’t check-list on a survey and say to yourself, ah yes, well done! Now I know what WANT is. Now I know what to do with this wanting person called theatre and how it need answer to the predicated want we have identified in the audience. It doesn’t work that way because working imaginatively with desire goes beyond commodified structures, and requires something else from the art-maker and, in turn, the audience. You want cultural urgency? You want art to go deep? Then, you have to let it go deep. Sometimes, maybe even to the point of near disappearance, in order that it may find itself, and understand how it – the art (un-named in the act of creation) wants desire in the first place.
If you do not know what it is to want desire, then you have to go back and look out into the darkness. Really look.
And wait for a long time.
And then let it course through you, and speak to you in tongues that may be unfamiliar, altogether strange. It may be the tongue of fire, rain, absence, loss, grief, pain, trauma, pride, madness, quiet, beauty, ecstasy, or something else. Like stone, or rock or flower or animal. Yes, desire may be all these things. And that’s where being present and alive to the wanting want of art, the please please please of it yearning in that mad croon of Morrissey back in the day, feels like sometimes.
Listen, you can’t always get what you want. The Rolling Stones said it. And who knows who before them. You get what you need. Right? Art is a necessary thing. Or simply put, art is necessary.
It is not dutiful. It is not a service. It may not even be useful (as in a utilitarian tool of society – although many bodies wish to make it so, for reasons that perhaps have less to do with art itself than the lack, especially in market-driven societies, of a deep understanding of the nature of the true ethics of engagement, the role of the citizen-spectator historically and in the present, and with art’s defiantly unstable position in regard to its perceived or expected “value.”).
But it is necessary. Usefulness and necessity are not the same thing! Art is not going to go down easy, all the time. In fact, most of the time, it won’t. Because it is alive and roaring and not a pacifier of culture but a stirrer up of culture. Yet, one that knows how to hold society in its hands and say,
Hey, look, see, this is us. Now.
This was us, then.
This is who we may be.
What are going to do about it?
What are we going to do?
What can we do?
Art-making (and all its senses and tenses, including its production) is care-taking. We are doing cultural work, after all. We are taking care of our society. Somehow. With this telling stories thing. We are putting another ripple in the stream of history. We are working for the better good. And we are working for the future.
When we ask audiences what they want? They may say what they saw yesterday is what they want. But our job is to make for the future as well as the now. Even if we are talking about yesterday. The audience, smart and alive, may not recognize the future call when they see it. It may take an audience 50 years to discover the thing made years before that was for them. That’s the nature of the art. There’s no guarantee. There’s no magic formula. There’s no real surefire anything. Do all the market tests you want. Audiences are fickle, difficult to please, unpredictable, hearty, strange beasts. We love them. Sometimes we are them.
But as makers, we tend to look at our fellow citizens with a bit of unease, because when we make things, we are stepping for a moment outside the path trod by our fellows, even if we are walking in their shoes.
Art-making demands we step out and look and see before we make. We become spectators of the spectators in order to be artists, and then we rejoin the society with our art and ask the spectators, emancipated, glorious, alive and kicking, be they one or a hundred or more, to recognize what we have seen. It becomes a kind of collective dreaming. At its best. A dream of the future born of a recent past. A model kit born out of no model, save the one of an event in space and some/one to witness it.
Photo Credit: Jody Christopherson
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.