I. Liveness and Engagement
Can one ever assume a “living relationship” between art and audience? We can bring audiences to the table, but we can’t make them eat—that is a function of their own desire and appetite, or taste for what we have made, for them, and for ourselves.
As artists, we have to make work that has urgency for us. Sometimes that coincides with social concerns, but we aren’t social workers or priests. I don’t believe theatres have a ministry, or a duty to the community, although I think it can be enriching for both theatres and communities to become engaged with one another. Of course, I have witnessed many a play, solo performance, or production that seems to explore the spirit and to speak from it. I think, for instance of work by Meredith Monk, or a dance by Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker to music by Steve Reich. I felt a movement of the spirit within the work and within me when witnessing it. (Music and dance, especially, can have that effect.)
Last September (2014) I had an intimate experience of the vagaries of relationship, with varying degrees of liveness, that one can have as a performer with an audience. As part of the Crossing the Line Festival, in this case a collaborative production between F.I.A.F. (French Institute/Alliance Francaise) and PS 122 on a Hudson River Pier, I performed in a work by Argentine writer/director Fernando Rubio. Fernando has toured this work internationally, and his is an interesting model. He writes and stages the productions, but keeps them technically simple and conceptually interesting. For this piece, Everyone By My Side, seven women lie in seven beds. A single audience member joins a performer in the bed, lies down, and hears the text, spoken, sometimes whispered, by the performer.
The range of audience responses was fascinating. Some people closed their eyes and never opened them, not even looking when they left the bed, lying rigid the entire time. Other people teared up at a passage that had resonance for them. Some people said thank you when they left—one woman enthusiastically exclaimed that she was so glad to have come and to have met me, even like this. Of course, she had not met “me”—but we had shared something significant—the stirring experience of being moved by liveness, by words voiced that were meaningful to the auditor in this intimate and yet completely public setting.
I’ve thought about how this project distills theatre into its essence: a space of exchange. A small space—a single bed. It’s all we need. That, and a story to tell that can resonate with another. If the audience member isn’t open to the moment, it’s hard to say the experience is one of liveness, for either party. But if the spectator is open, the performer can be moved, too.
This is no solution for the American Theatre as an institution, but it was a valuable reminder to me of how potent the theatrical experience can be when it is an exchange (and not primarily of money—tickets were $5). As I’ve noted in a previous TCG post, where I spoke of my experience performing with 600 Highwaymen, (http://www.tcgcircle.org/2014/06/changing-relationships-between-theatres-and-communities/), I believe that theatre that offers ordinary people a degree of participation in the experience, as occasional performers, or perhaps breaking bread or raising a glass together, is very appealing to people in this digital age. I think of what Diller/Scofidio & Renfro did with the new re-configuration of Lincoln Center—it’s all about opening up the building and connecting it to the street, making inside and outside more porous. I think we need to do that with our theatre buildings, and I think we need to do that with our theatres themselves. Some people will never allow themselves to engage, but so many others are hungry for being touched, or moved, or blown away by important ideas and images, possibly presented in radical ways. Theatre has always been a place of dialogue and exchange, a place where debates about how to live have raged. We of course will see that continue on our large stages—because traditional audiences are still interested in sitting down and watching, being moved from a distance. But I suspect that the young, diverse, and non-traditional audiences we want to have exchanges with may prefer to stay moving and talk back, to engage with live art in a livelier way. If we want to bring those audiences in, we may have to go outside–perhaps to a pier on a river, where one is apt to be stolling anyway on a beautiful fall day.
II. Theatrical Collaboration & Audience “Evolution”
Immediately I think: first we have to get people to believe that evolution and climate change are real. Whoa! Doesn’t everyone who goes to the theatre think that they are? In New York City, yes, and most likely elsewhere. But how do we get the deniers into the house and shift their perceptions? I don’t have the answer, but I know that you have to reach them when they’re young.
I’ve never made theatre for children, but I was first hooked on theatrical magic as a child, when the scrim color shifted as Bloody Mary sang Bali Hai. I thought her beautiful voice made the scrim change color. No matter, the theatrical experience promised wonder and fascination for me ever since.
Do I think we need to seduce audiences with musicals? No, but I think wonder has its place in moving people from their complacent views and opinions into areas where they may initially be uncomfortable. I think if we can get audiences engaged in relationships with unlikely partners—I think of New York Theatre Workshop’s program where teenagers are linked with elderly people and paired to interview one another and each write a play based on the other’s experience—that real exchanges and shifts in viewpoints can happen. If we can get young people engaged, and then somehow get their reactionary parents involved, maybe we can slowly move the national conversation to a more progressive place.
III. What Is Made, and How
As an independent artist who has had work presented and produced in a variety of settings, and who has benefited from grants funding at times, I find myself increasingly looking outside “theatrical institutions” as such, and yet am unwilling to resort to crowd source funding as an alternative. I’m stubborn, perhaps, in insisting that government funding for theatre is a national responsibility and that access to the arts is essential to an informed and enlightened citizenry. My work isn’t didactic, it isn’t full of lessons and morals, but it is passionate, enlightening, and filled with wonder. Should your tax dollars contribute to it being out in the world, or is that strictly the purview of philanthropists and corporations? Can a number of theatres (let’s say small theatres) across the country band together to apply for a large grant (let’s say a federal one, from the NEA) to feature independent artists from their communities, who then travel to at least one other small theatre to show work and share ideas? Or, more radical—how about if the independent artists apply for the grant, and choose the theatres? Artists have their own relationships with their communities– their concerns are perhaps more often than not incidental to the institution’s. There are different paths to connecting with communities, and with individuals who experience themselves as more attached to their cell phones than to their zip code. One of my students just saw a performance at LaMama by Yara Arts Group, about a city in Ukraine under siege, where audience members had to give up their cel phones and house keys. Everyone was at least momentarily disoriented and uncomfortable. I think that kind of disorientation and discomfort can be useful, if not vital, to re-orienting and enlivening perceptions and perspectives, as well as relationships between art and audiences.
Meanwhile, I still sometimes love a big expensive spectacle with great production values and compelling acting and direction. I like even more an intimate experience of subtle changes, with astute, innovative writing. I think there is room for the whole smorgasbord of possible theatrical experiences in America. We’re a big country, with room for everyone at the table.
Lenora Champagne is a performance artist, playwright, director and educator who most frequently writes dramas of men and women who live in a more direct relationship to nature. Visit her at www.lenorachampagne.com
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.