(The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Jim Hart, regular TCG Circle contributor and Director of Arts Entrepreneurship at SMU and American and international theatre artist Chad Leslie, Resident Artistic Director of The House of Dancing Water, in Macau, China. 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.)
Jim: Chad, when creating theatre, how do you reflect and make decisions about engagement with your audiences?
Chad: That’s a great question that shifted significantly for me about 16 years ago when I first moved to Taiwan to explore South East Asia. I was in a major earthquake there in 1999 that really shook me to my core. With 2000 people dead around me, I began to think of ways to use theater as a means to support the healing process of Aboriginal people who’s villages were destroyed. I began working with a local community theater that took me into these communities. From there, a new trajectory was born. I saw how powerful the arts could be in service to the community.
For me, I was driven by the idea, “We’re doing something in service to the community and people,” and this has carried through every project I have done since. In my work, I’m addressing something that is a topic that’s important to or relevant to what’s happening here today, even now that I am doing commercial theater work. I think this is important when considering engagement.
Jim: So, when you are creating, do you have your audience directly in mind?
Chad: Yes. It’s very difficult to go into the arts without having a specific driver, a specific purpose or a specific audience in mind. We often see art for arts sake and art for business sake, which I believe the later many artists fear. The work of the professional artist lives somewhere in the middle. I think of that middle as providing a service through my art.
In order to understand this balance I had to re-frame my concept of what a business is and that, I fear, is often misunderstood by artists. It was by me anyway. As I understand it, business, by nature, is providing a service that people need and want to buy. All the great businesses I know are driven by a vision to provide a great service and this is true for great art. If it is good enough, then people will want to buy it.
Jim: I agree. Both art and entrepreneurship are driven by vision. There is a correlation between art and business. Unless you have a paying customer, you have no business. Hopefully you have a lot of paying customers to make what you do sustainable over time. Similarly, we find this concept in theater. Without audience, there is no act of theatre. The audience becomes the final collaborator in the process. So, to create a work of art that is not thinking about the audience seems selfish to me. It’s good to consider our collaborators.
Chad: Mmm. Yeah, I agree.
Jim: Art for art’s’ sake certainly has its place and its value.
Chad: It definitely has its value.
Jim: Agreed. But if you want to make a living and want it potentially to be of value to someone else, you have a better chance of doing so if you create with that individual (or audience) in mind.
I play this game in my Arts Entrepreneurship classes, drawing from one of Bill Aulet’s concepts. He’s the Head of Entrepreneurship at MIT. He urges entrepreneurs to always create with the customer in mind, to not just create based on what you want to do and what you are passionate about and know, but to always create with the customer in mind. In doing so, you are far more likely to have a successful business because you are creating specifically with the customer’s needs in mind.
In this ideation game, students come up with original concepts. I say to them, “Okay, you’re going to partner up in groups of two to interview each other and try to identify one another’s persona, if you will. They ask questions of each other like, “What keeps you up at night? What problems do you see in your community? What websites do you frequent? What do you love to think about that causes you to lose all track of time?” There are some other questions too. After each person asks the same questions of each other, then they create 3 business concepts, each creating with their partner in mind, based on the answers from their questions.
At the end, I ask the them, “Are you interested in your partner’s concepts?” What I consistently find is about a 90% success rate. This is because these concepts were created with each partner in mind. They are literally created for the person. An artist can create in the same way, but with their audience in mind, which then serves as the artist’s “muse.” Some will find this method of creating controversial, concerning art, fearing it leads to commercialism. Many artists still have a hang up concerning art and its relation to business.
Chad: The key word there is “fear.” An artist’s relationship to the business side of what they do is a fear of the thing that they don’t usually understand. Up until very recently, I didn’t understand this concept because I hadn’t put any kind of effort into understanding the business side of art. I had always thought of business as only thinking about making money. I was surprised to discover this is not the case. Good businesses have great missions that aspire to give beyond what they take monetarily.
There is always a tendency to reject what we don’t understand.
Jim: Do you experience this with your artists in Macau?
Chad: Yes. I experience this a lot with the artists in the theatre who lived their whole life in a gym before signing a contract for a major commercial production. They have been told what to do by their coaches with very little understanding of business and production. Now that they are having to deal with the business themselves, they often fear they are being taken advantage of, even when they are not.
What I’m trying to do now is help them understand what is on the other side; what are the reasons behind the business of theatre? How do the finances work? Slowly, they are beginning to understand the effort that’s being put in on the producer’s side that’s helping to support what they’re doing artistically.
Jim: A lot of artists have a funny way of thinking about money. A lot have romanticized the notion of starving because so many of their heroes have done so and do. But there’s nothing romantic about starving. Starving sucks! Starving is starving. We can think of money as a symbol of the value that the community perceives we offer. If they’re willing to buy our books, to donate to our cause, if they’re willing to spend money to see our plays… or… whatever you’ve got, if they’re willing to throw money at it, they clearly value it in some respect. It’s hard to argue that point.
Chad: I agree. Drawing back to what you were saying earlier about finding out what it is the audience needs or wants and then supplying that need…that’s basic business.
Jim: Isn’t it though? That’s supply and demand.
Chad: That’s it! It’s supply and demand. What do they need right now? I don’t see why artists would want to reject this notion. Commercialization is just mass marketing of an idea. Yes there is a lot of crap out there, but there is a lot of crap being driven through the non-commercial theater as well. Maybe it’s what’s in the zeitgeist? If its a good idea, and you are providing a good service, I don’t see what the problem is, especially today. We have the Internet, which reaches out to more specific audiences. With all of the communities that are being brought together today, you really can find your specific audience without having to become mainstream…. if you so choose.
Jim: Right? It doesn’t necessarily even have to be local. Your audience may be international, stemming from small pockets from around the globe. That’s one of the things that make the web so powerful. Moreover, you have the power to choose your audience, to choose who you want to serve and, even more empowering, who you do not wish to serve.
Chad: There are a lot of avenues for communication, but I think it goes without saying that if you want to do this professionally, meaning you want to put a roof over your head and eat off this, you have made the decision to go into business and if you are going to do so, it is worth doing well. You must decide what service you are providing, what do you have to say, and to what audience are you speaking?
Otherwise, like you said, you could go do it in your room at home and that’s perfectly fine as well. I have a lot of things that I create in my room that will never be shared with an audience. But once you step over into the realm of I want to make a living and eat off this then you should be asking yourself these basic business questions.
Jim: It’s also to ask what your personal meaning is. What’s your personal mission or mission statement? What is it you have to say? Everyone wants to live a meaningful life and everyone wants to experience something meaningful. So, what is meaningful to you?
As artists, we don’t necessarily always have to offer what is obvious that the community wants. We don’t need to pander to the lowest common denominator. Maybe the audience themselves don’t necessarily know what they need or want and maybe it is the job of the artist to serve as a conscience and mirror for society…you know…these sort of higher roles that an artist can play beyond escapism. Artists can serve as a vehicle for escapism and entertainment too, but can also serve as a voice for a people, a time, a culture and articulate needs the audience didn’t necessarily realize that they had. Mythologist Joseph Campbell says, “Artists are a cultures mythmakers.” I really like that notion. That is one of the great powers of an artist.
Now how does one come to do that, to serve in such a way? Well, you have to be conscious. You have to be present enough to perceive your surroundings, be awake enough so that you develop a perspective within and about your community–so you have something to say, so you can express your meaning. I think that that’s an important part of bringing an audience in; appealing to their needs, appealing to their sensibilities, not necessarily pandering, but understanding the audience well enough so as to be able to create for them.
Chad: It’s a really delicate balance between the unconscious and the conscious side of the work; the artistic and the business. Knowing that you’re doing this with a goal to say something, but also with a goal to put food on the table, demands we find a balance that does not muffle the artistic voice and simultaneously serves the audience.
Jim Hart is a theatre artist and entrepreneur. He currently serves as Director of Arts Entrepreneurship at Meadows School of the Arts, SMU. Hart founded The International Theatre Academy Norway in Oslo, Norway and is a graduate of both SMU and Yale School of Drama. Click here for more on Hart.
Chad W. Leslie is the Resident Artistic Director for Franco Dragone’s production The House of Dancing Water in Macau China. Since graduating in Directing from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Chad has spent the past 16 years in Asia, creating, performing in, and producing numerous artistic projects, education programs, conferences, and performances with artists from all over the world.
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.