Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Friday, June 26, 2009

Theatre, Relevance and Hush Puppies

The back-and-forth between PianoFight head Carl Benson and me continues, having migrated from Chloe Veltman’s lies like truth over to the PianoFight blog. And now it’s getting interesting--we’ve essentially set aside Free Night of Theater (which was how the whole thing started: I think Free Night works, Carl doesn’t, and never the twain shall meet) and have moved onto ground where we more or less agree about the problem, if not the solution.

Our discussion now (as you’ll see, if you take a look at the initial post at PianoFight and then the subsequent comments) centers around what is driving down theatre attendance--essentially, what is precluding people from considering theatre to be a good way to spend their free time. In my mind, the issue is actually a series of smaller issues on a continuum, namely:

- People don’t get exposed to theatre in formative years
- They develop methods of interacting with other media (TV, music, even visual arts, to some degree), but don’t learn the (rather complex, if you think about it) mores of being a (even passively) participatory audience member at a theatre event
- When presented with an option to attend a show, they not only feel disconnected from the need for live performance, they feel at least somewhat worried/nervous about fitting in and/or acting correctly
- This feeling, coupled with the cost of attendance and what the WolfBrown intrinsic impact study is showing to be a significant lack of social networks interested in attending live performance, keeps people out of our doors--even though there’s a good chance they’d both fit in fine and enjoy the performance once they were there
- Rinse and repeat.

“This is absurd,” you might say. “Who doesn’t know how to behave in a theatre? It’s just like watching a movie.”

But it’s not, not really. People don’t dress up (not even a little) for a movie. They don’t mill in the lobby beforehand. They don’t pay an average ticket price of $35 for a ticket (which raises expectations of what’s going to be offered). There are no people that breathe on stage, and say the words, and change things up and forget lines and sweat and spit and move about. Movies are voyeurism at much more of a remove than anything theatre has to offer.

I remember seeing a production of Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby at the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC (photo of that production at left) when I was in college. It was a school assignment, and I was there with the 15 or so students from my class and my hippie-dippie teacher. This is a space with maybe 100 seats, surrounding a thrust, and here suddenly are these two nubile, prancing, very naked 20-somethings with all the bits and pieces out on display--and here’s a man nursing on a girl’s bare breast, and yes, here’s some witty Albee-esque repartee, but who can remember that.

Of course, it’s not just nudity. Helen Mirren in The Queen was great, fantastic, all the accolades you can think of--but look at the words they’re using for her current turn as Phedre at the National in London. I can just imagine the energy, the crisp static energy that must be running through the theatre there--it’s something that is absolutely irreplicable anywhere except live on stage. And I would bet for someone who didn’t have much experience, it would be both electrifying and off-putting all at once.

More mundane differences--there’s no intermission in a movie (unless it’s Gone With the Wind, and jeez-oh was I glad about that). What’s the appropriate thing to do there? Do you sit? Do you go out and mill? Are you allowed to talk about what you’ve seen--should you judge it in progress, or are you expected to wait? When can you clap mid-show? What level of verbal reaction is appropriate, and when do you need to muffle? What if you really like something, but you’re the only one who gives it a standing ovation at the end? Is everyone just sitting there judging you? And why, oh why is everyone sitting around me so damn old? And after, what if you hated it, and everyone else is ecstatic? What if, as I’ve heard more than once, you “just didn’t get it?” Do you talk about it with your friend, or do you keep it quietly to yourself?

What is the acceptable reaction/interaction/action after, for example, seeing a man die on stage in At Home at the Zoo? What is the acceptable reaction to watching a dying woman give up and walk into the light in Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning Wit?

Carl, in his latest comment, makes a great statement, with which I agree, but to which I must add a caveat. First the statement: “Theatre has got to take at least some of the blame for this drop in attendance, awareness and relevance. If we do not collectively take a long, hard look at our art and our business, Free Night of Theater won’t save us, it’ll just prolong the death spiral.”

I think there are theatres that are already working to address these issues--theatres, actually, like PianoFight, where, in Carl’s words, the audiences are “loud, raucous, and quite frequently (though not always) inebriated.” Not that drinking’s the way out of this particular hole, necessarily, but the sentiment is there: break all the boundaries, examine everything, and see what’s left. This, however, is the realm, mostly, of small companies, who are flexible and nimble enough to sample the latest Hot New Thing. Sure, ACT can allow drinks in the theatre, but it traffics in opulence and, somewhat, in familiarity. If you take the dress-up out of the affair, it loses something irretrievable and essentially valuable to that particular type of theatre. And even Berkeley Rep, the new-play-presenting brother company across the Bay, may do new organic work drawn from the community. They may even commission the stage version of American Idiot, complete with punk-rock craziness and the director that brought Duncan Sheik to a stage near you. But I promise you it’ll be a different (not quantifiably better or worse, necessarily, but different) experience from the inebriated experiences of PianoFight.

A study by Theatre Development Fund in New York (runner of the TKTS booth, but also a substantial research engine for arts nonprofits) recently noted that while theatre attendance is on the decline, overall audiences are actually more likely than ever to pay the exorbitant price of a Broadway ticket--once or twice a year. It’s a special event, often done at the same time every year, wrapped in amidst splurges like a nice dinner and a dress-up date. It is theatre as an event, and I think that’s fabulous. The downside, however, is that theatre as an event is special in the same way that the hush puppies I experience when I visit my parents in North Carolina are special: delicious, decadent and available for a very limited time. If I had hush puppies every day, well…you get the idea.

Where Carl wants to get to, I think, and it’s a noble place to be searching for, is a place where some portion of the theatregoing audience is going for a more, dare I say, minor experience--a little after-work way to blow off steam, less a full entrée, more an amuse bouche. There are only so many momentous events one needs in a day, a week, a year. Carl talks about how Shakespearean plays were originally done before rowdy restless groundlings.

I should also say, unequivocally, that I don’t think theatre is in a death spiral. I just think it’s changing. The rumblings in the rising generation of leaders are all about relevance, pertinence, theatre for the people. The Neo-futurists, the Civilians, the Rude Mechanicals, the (now separated) Tectonic Theatre Project (and here in SF, individuals and groups like David Szlasa, Banana Bag and Bodice, foolsFury)--we’ve had companies playing with form, function and relevance for years. And now the presenters are starting to follow--gay nights, young nights, pre-talks, post-talks, in-show texting, drinking, audience-driven narrative, Twitter plays…phew. Theatre’s not going to die, it’s just not going to be how it was. And that’s okay.

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AATC Presents Fayette-Nam

Last night Asian American Theater Company opened its world premiere of Fayette-Nam at Thick House, where it’s in residence this season. The energy was pretty palpable: the 36-year-old company has had its ups and downs lately, but coartistic director, Duy Nguyen, who directed the play, announced in his curtain talk that “Asian American Theater Company is back!”

And it’s back in a big way. With a youthful core of artists, AATC chooses not to play it safe with a more well-known David Henry Hwang but a world premiere by Aurorae Khoo, an LA-based playwright, screenwriter and arts educator. Fayette-Nam takes place in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg, and centers on a single Asian American mother, Laura-Lai (Lisa Kang), who runs a dingy donut and eggroll shop next to a strip joint. She’s apparently engaged to a military higher-up but has a rather mysterious relationship with a 19-year-old soldier from Oakland (Jon Gentry) who’s gone AWOL the night before he’s deployed to Iraq. Laura-Lai is quite intriguing, a wanna-be Southern Belle who’s struggling on the boundary of marginalization. She’s given to whimsical and sweetly sad flights of fancy, acting out in great detail her dream of opening a patisserie on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, and comparing people and love to food, as with the lovely and funny Bundt cake monologue at the top of act two. But her fantasies are abruptly interrupted by the reality of her college-age pyromaniac daughter (Kathleen Mendoza) and her young son (Kenneth Tan Ronquillo) who’s struggling with his first crush and some bullies from school.

This production is a very loose collaboration with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Company, one we detailed in Theatre Bay Area’s February cover story (AATC helped with casting on LHT’s February production of Waitin’ 2 End Hell). But for more details on Fayette-Nam, definitely check out AATC’s new website, fully hooked up with all the social networking. The show’s video is also worth checking out in general, but also as an example of how to solve the videotaping a stage play problem. This video looks more like a trailer for an indie film—not surprising given the playwright is also a screenwriter—because they didn’t videotape action on stage, but put the action in a filmlike context.

The evening also ended on an energetic note, with board producer Darryl Chiang encouraging the audience to get more involved with and support the company. From now through July it presents new works incubators and workshops, and its next full production in October is another world premiere: Philip Kan Gotanda’s #5 Angry Red Drum. Congrats AATC!


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Boys and Girls and Plays

Guest blogger Sabrina Lazarus has just posted a great entry on the Theatre Bay Area arts marketing blog The Mark-Up reacting to the much publicized study on male/female inequalities in playwriting profiled by the New York Times (and now by and NPR), as well as spread hither and yon across the blogosphere (66 blogs at the time I looked it up).

My most interesting takeaway from Sabrina's post: Rather than focusing on the much more publicized finding that female artistic directors are generally harder on women than on men, Lazarus chooses to take a longer view on the data--with a more positive conclusion. While the overall number of female playwrights submitting work for review is lower than the male counterpart group (about 18%), the percentage of the work submitted that is produced is the same percentage across gender. That is to say, regardless of gender, the rate of production is the same, even if the actual number of female playwrights that get produced is smaller (because there are fewer submissions from women--which is, admittedly, itself a problem).

The study is gigantic (over 100 pages) and messy, in that it looks at such a hot-button question and tries to address so many Big Questions. That said, it does it with more than a little nuance, which is great--a jumping off point for a fairly robust conversation, I'd say. Anyway, check it out.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How to Lose Your Audience in One Easy Step

A couple of months ago, I was in downtown Berkeley with my 2-year-old daughter Sophie and happened upon an outdoor dance performance that was part of National Dance Week. We sat down on the grass to watch, and Sophie was absolutely transfixed by what I realized was her first live performance experience. She couldn’t take her eyes off the dancers and gradually got up and began to imitate them. My husband and I, theatre folks from way back, were thrilled by her enthusiasm. I’m such an arts participation geek that I even leaned over to him and said, “This is how you build future audiences.”

As the dancing continued, Sophie began to stray a bit further into the performance space (keeping in mind that we’re talking about a lawn here, not a stage). Right away, someone from the group came over and very angrily told us to “control our kid.” And of course, as soon as I put her on my lap and told her she had to keep still, she lost interest and we had to leave.

Now, I’m not saying that my child should be allowed to run wild and trip the dancers. But this made me think hard about the way we set up the divide between the performers and the audience. Maybe this particular performance was endangered by a toddler dancing on the sidelines (more likely she was just in the videographer’s shot), but why set it up that way? Here was a performance that was free, outdoors and part of a program whose mission is to build new dance audiences. Why not come up with a performance that encouraged the audience to share the experience?

Watching through the eyes of a 2-year old you see very clearly that dance is something you do with your body. Why not capitalize on the impulse at the core of dance in the structure of the event instead of asking the audience to watch in a way that disengages them from why they got interested in the first place? As a parent, I’m always looking for ways to introduce Sophie to the joy and delight of making and experiencing art. That is, I’m looking for allies in my work of raising an arts lover. As a theatremaker, I haven’t always thought about my work in that light--I’ve generally just chosen the kind of plays I was interested in, and then put them on in the traditional way: on a stage, in the dark, mostly at night. But now, I really want to think carefully about how the work could have fewer rules and more pleasure, could be accessible to people of different ages, and could help expand our vision of what an arts experience looks like.


Drinking the Night Away - A Cautionary Tale

So, I'm sitting in the Geary last night, watching the first half of At Home at the Zoo, and I keep getting these random whiffs of scotch in my nose. Very confusing--I wondered if someone around me was simply at the performance so much against their will that they had to get drunk first, or what. But it turns out the explanation was much more mundane: there was guy with a full-on two inches of scotch in a glass two seats down, sipping it nice as you please.

It made me wonder, in this era of trying to break down barriers to attendance (things like allowing people to bring drinks into the theatre) how do we identify and deal with the unintended consequences? Not that the guy was belligerent or unpleasant in any way--not even that he spilled or broke his glass or whatever. Simply that snorting scotch in the theatre wasn't something I'd envisioned with my Albee, and it took me just slightly out of the experience every time I caught the smell. As a marketer, this unintended consequence gave me pause--I'm a big proponent of things like drinks in the theatre, texting during shows--anything that is, generally speaking, a relatively minor change to theatre etiquette--but how fascinating when a "minor change" so directly and unexpectedly affects others.

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