Here’s a question: How many Bitter Lemons readers out there are not theater professionals or theater artists of some kind? Not actors or writers or directors or producers or designers or technicians? How many readers have no affiliation whatsoever with the performing arts other than being audience members?
Here’s another question: of all of you theater professionals and theater artists out there, how many of you can remember what it feels like to simply be an audience member, to not bring with you all of your own insider knowledge and experience and critically honed faculties when you enter the house? I know I can’t. I can’t watch a play anymore without being a dramaturg. Hell, I can’t even watch a TV show without trying to dramaturg it. I’m a prisoner to my own totally obscure, totally nerdy pseudo-job!
These questions always pop into my mind whenever I hear theater artists start to talk about what audiences want and don’t want or what they’re thinking and not thinking. The vast majority of the people reading this, the vast majority of the people engaging in the larger conversation about theater that Bitter Lemons is a part of, we’re not typical audience members and any attempt we make to put ourselves in their brain inevitably and inherently amounts to nothing but guesswork. This was hammered home to me a few weeks back at the LA STAGE talk on the intrinsic impact of theater. In my post on that presentation, I mentioned the part of the study that showed employees of a theater company vastly overestimating the percentage of audience members who they thought would be offended by a particularly controversial show they were getting set to produce. I think this is because they wanted their audience to be offended and their estimations reflected that optimism, that hope that the play would hit audiences in the most sensitive spot, in a way that they would remember. Just like us, these employees have devoted their working lives to a low-paying, frequently scoffed at and almost completely marginalized art form and the way we make all that okay is by telling ourselves that theater has a unique ability to generate catharsis and open people up to new ideas and beliefs and emotions in ways that sometimes are upsetting and sometimes joyous and always transcendent. Theater can indeed do all of that so all of this is right. This is why we make theater and this is why we go to see theater. But this is not why audiences go.
This is not me assuming anything or trying to put myself into the collective mind of a group that I forfeited my membership to years ago. These are the numbers that the intrinsic impact study gave to us. Fully 51% of audiences responding said they go to theater to relax or escape. It was the number one reason. As a colleague of mine said recently, people don’t get offended by nudity, or language, or violence. They get offended when they get confused. They get offended when they aren’t allowed to relax. There’s this wall that’s been built up between us and our audiences where we keep insisting that they should watch our plays like this and they keep telling us they want to watch it like that. And all this does is make us angrier and more self-righteous and even more gravely serious and all that does is make us that much more unappealing to an audience that just wants us to put on a show.
My man Jason Rohrer (I’ve never actually met Jason but I’m going to call him “my man” anyway because I’ve seen what happens when you get on Jason’s bad side) wrote a really interesting post earlier this week about the declining standards and expectations in theater. I agree with pretty much everything Jason says. This isn’t summer camp and we’re not handing out awards for participation and citizenship and coloring in the lines here. The more we conduct ourselves like that, the lower the bar goes and the more we write ourselves out of the conversation. And I’m not saying we throw in the towel and just give the animals the warmed-over musical satires of campy movies that they’ve been clamoring for this whole time. All I’m saying is that we’re not their parents. We can’t make them eat their vegetables if they don’t want to. Perhaps, what they don’t want is simply what they don’t want. Perhaps we’d be better off accepting this and not fighting it.
About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of needtheater and previously served as their resident dramaturg and literary manager. Production dramaturgy credits for needtheater include: Fatboy, Mercury Fur, Scarcity, tempOdyssey, and The Web. He also directed needtheater's world premiere production of Guided Consideration of a Lamentable Deed. He is the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where he runs the advanced playwrights lab and helps to oversee new play development. He is also an associate artist with the international, new script development group LoNyLa, and works as a script consultant for theaters, including The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, and Native Voices at the Autry. He trained for two years under a dramaturgy fellowship at Centerstage in Baltimore and is a graduate of Wesleyan University.