As a Latina playwright, I’ve frequently arrived to town to the news that my host theatre would like me to get the Latino audience to their theatre. This often happens before I’ve put my bag in my room, located the grocery store, and a passable cup of coffee. I often think, “Sure, let me locate the Latinos for you. I’ll be on that right away.” The truth is, I understand the anxiety and the request.
My work has been selected and well-slated for this particular audience. Wouldn’t it be great if my play’s themes, my Spanish name, the photos of my actors in the press materials, and me magically speaking fluent Spanish on the local TV station, would attract the new Latino audience in droves to my mostly English-language play? Wouldn’t it be easy if the Latino audience walked up to us and said, “We’ve been waiting. Yes, we will take all that money we spend on blockbuster movies and rock concerts and give it to you Diverse American Theatre.”
Audiences are hard-earned, and, dare I say, fickle. One positive experience does not necessarily parlay itself into the audience returning to that theatre to see the next play. Conversely, one bad experience, we often believe, does directly correspond to the chances of that audience member never returning to that space again. We desire to seduce the audience while simultaneously fearing them. We walk a careful line between titillation and caution. In fearing doing too much, we often do too little.
The directive I give myself when I’m facing the blank page at the start of a new play is to sin boldly. What that means is that I expect myself to give my characters license to do things I would never myself. To sin boldly as a playwright is to write without worrying about what anyone will ever think of you or your characters on the other side. It is to write with reckless abandon. I believe we should apply this concept to our relationship with audiences. We have to stop worrying about what they think of us, so we can have a meaningful exchange. Like all forms of love, our relationship to our audience requires risk for it to succeed. We all know that predicting audience response remains akin to playing the stock market, the numbers at Vegas, or even worse, “investing” in a Ponzi scheme. If only I had the special super power to recruit all the Latinos in the city to a particular theatre for a particular play. If only. And wouldn’t it be great if we organically expected an audience brought in for one type of show, i.e, black, Latino, GLBT, etc. to be retained for every other type of show even as the themes of the work move far beyond the identity stories that led us to initially recruit them? Surely, we can only say this of audiences: they are predictable in their unpredictability. We have no idea what the hell they are going to like. Our only answer is to chuck our expectations of what will work and to sin boldly. Here are some steps to sinning with ease.
First, let’s consider a diverse audience. How does our specificity speak to our universality and how do we blur the line so that our theatre remains for all citizens at all times, both about us and about all things in one fell swoop? How do specificity and universality find a new dance as culture changes at the blink of an eye.
How is culture changing? Like the playwrights in our field, we must know which moment we are in while we are in it. Social media has transformed how we look at and value an opinion. Our years of experience in the field, our points-of-view, and our right to speak have been equalized by the accessibility of our mutually held platform. We frequently refer to this as entitlement. We might have been raised on the dictum, “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.” Journalism has sacrificed accuracy for an alternate version of what we in the theatre call premiere-itus. Now, it appears that it is more important to be first than to be right. Fact-checking has been subsumed by speed.
I’ve read many attacks on the phrase “talkback.” I concur that we do not engage audiences to speak down to them. I’m not sure that’s what anybody ever intended to do in the first place. Sometimes careful preparation leads us to conducting lectures instead of conversations. I suggest, instead, that we recognize we are participants in a culture of the endless conversation. I suggest we begin to see our audience as our brain trust—our hive mind. I suggest that we, as a field, mine what this might mean by presuming our audience is intelligent.
Here’s what I observe of the endless conversation. Our throughlines with one another never quite disappear once they’ve been threaded into the discourse. We merely hit the pause button. And like the non-linear conversations of my childhood dinner table, points are dropped and picked up at a later date, sometimes randomly and without context. Our collective conversation has become the new context, and our concerns diffused by the sheer number of those who share them. We have become of the same mind in ways I’ve never witnessed in the past. We might grab this moment and focus our efforts on recognizing our current propensity for communal thought. If we are a community building communal thought, what direction do we want to take our united hive mind? How might we concentrate all this juicy intellectual effort in a direction that will serve us all?
How might we use the diffusion of individual thought in the dominant culture to our benefit? Take social media. Opinions would be purposefully made anonymous in our digital interactions. The focus would remain not on who said what, but only on the fact that it was said at all. I recommend we augment our concept of the talkback with something else. We are not practicing audience engagement per se, but intellectual engagement. What if we see it as our role to bring our audience into the thought world that hovers over our work? What if we avoid throwing them softball questions, but ask the more difficult ones? What if we expect something of them and refuse to allow them to be passive while we perform in front of them on a horizontal plane?
What if we ask our audience to do the hard work of truth seeking alongside us? What if we begin to see the very real parallels between the work that they do and the work that we do and ask them how to incorporate and merge their work with ours? What if we simply expect more of them and of ourselves? What if we invest more, not less, into this growing symbiotic relationship? Perhaps we’ve been wrong that the audience has come to the theatre to relax. Perhaps the audience has come to the theatre to work.
We must continue to consider the many ways we might recognize the communal moment we live in and fully participate and hand ourselves over to this cultural shift. All around me, I see the dissolution of the individual in favor of community. People who once opted to live alone have converted over to the idea of sharing resources to survive. By having our finger on the pulse of our growing communal culture, theatre, which has always been a communal enterprise, might find itself a thought leader in the habits of collaborative success. We might already have, in our century’s old practice, ways to solve the pressing problems of our collapsing world.
Real and lasting change in our relationship to our audience will be hard won. It will be through trial and error. Sometimes we will sin boldly, risk offense to our Latino or other specifically-targeted audience, and indeed, offend. Our new common ground will be achieved through trying new methods that we haven’t tried already. We will listen until it hurts. We already know that social networking has changed the way we talk. How might we consider the existing forms of communication of social networking, email, and text, and the fluidity and natural interruption of those communication styles as they each contribute independently to the endless cultural conversation? How might we optimize the use of new media to find the new message? Sin boldly.
Elaine Romero is an award-winning playwright whose plays include Secret Things, Barrio Hollywood,!Curanderas! Serpents of the Clouds among many others. Her works have been presented at the Goodman Theatre, Alley Theatre, Kitchen Dog Theatre Company, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and across the U.S. and abroad. Recent commissions: Ford’s Theatre ( Modern Slave), Cornell University, Goodman Theatre, NNPN/Kitchen Dog Theater (Ponzi, Edgerton). Publishers: Samuel French, Playscripts, and Vintage Books. The first two installments of her trilogy, the U.S. at War, Graveyard of Empires and A Work of Art are currently in production in Chicago at 16th Street Theater and Chicago Dramatists (in association with the Goodman Theatre), respectively. Her Arizona/Mexican border trilogy includes Wetback, Mother of Exiles, and Untitled. She is a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists and Playwright-in-Residence at Arizona Theatre Company. Romero, Christine Evans, and Rachel Jendrzejewsk co-founded the international playwrights gender parity list, We Exist. She is an Assistant Professor in the School of Theatre, Film, and Television at the University of Arizona. Elaine splits her time between Tucson and Chicago.
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.