Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

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.



At June 24, 2009 at 2:28 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Rebecca, your post got me thinking about the larger pathway that we as the arts community need to set up to raise children with an appreciation for art. It seems to me there are certain art forms that are easier for children than others, and the major arts set up almost on a continuum for me -- music, then dance, then theatre, then visual arts -- although that may be a personal thing. To me, there's something so primary about the experience of music that it can be done at any age - and then the growth into dance, first through (as happened with your daughter) participation and then into more passive appreciation, comes in time. Then there's the linearity of most theatre, sometimes augmented by a song - and of course a lot of gradation between types. And then there's the inward experience of a museum - an experience I'm not sure I'm fully mature enough to yet get.

Your post got me wondering how we can all understand where we sit on the continuum and what our role is in creating the artists (and, as important, the arts consumers) of tomorrow. No answers, of course, but I agree that one good step is not to stifle the creative impulse if at all possible - maybe even to plan for it.

At June 26, 2009 at 10:30 AM , Blogger jeffrey said...

Excellent points. We so often believe theater HAS to be a certain way. That the audience is to sit still & be quiet, even if a company is performing outdoors at a family festival. It's important when creating work to remember where you are and who you're performing for. The joy of theater is that it's live. If one wants to be uninterrupted, one should go into film. T

At June 29, 2009 at 1:42 PM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

Excellent post. As much I rail on TBA, I can absolutely say that the Editor's Cut, Mark-Up, and now this blog are really great additions to the community. They're managed by excellently well informed and intelligent people who sincerely love theater. These blogs also provide a forum for people like Mrs. Novick to give her insights and ideas to what is, hopefully, a respectably sized audience of bloggo readers.

Regarding your actual point Mrs. Novick, I think you're dead on. Conceptually, it sounds like the gig missed the mark - with a blurred line between performers and audience (no stage) and at an event which is designed wholly to encourage the cultivation of new audience, I agree that the gig would have been better served had it been conceived with some type of (or at least the ability to incorporate it should it come up) audience participation.

The thing I want to know is, when the time comes, will you enroll your daughter in ballet, jazz, or hip-hop classes?

At July 6, 2009 at 11:19 AM , Blogger Rebecca Novick said...

Thanks Carl. As far as dance classes for Sophie, she's still a bit young for me to tell whether that will be an interest of hers -- and certainly for ballet at least I think there's a commitment and a discipline required that you can't invent for your child (and possibly I'm still a little traumatized from getting in trouble in ballet class when my hair perpetually escaped from the snood). But for sure I think that learning how to make art -- taking a dance class, taking a drawing class, being in a play, etc are really important parts of kids' education. And God knows there isn't much of that available in the CA schools!

At July 7, 2009 at 11:58 AM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

20 points for using the word "snood"!

At July 9, 2009 at 3:22 PM , Blogger Clay Lord said...

Erin Merritt, former Artistic Director of Woman's Will, asked me to post this comment for her.

"It's all about context. I too was a child who danced in the aisles, so I was welcomed at youth performances, but would have been disruptive at American Ballet Theater. Outdoor theater (like Woman's Will's shows, including, ahem, Taming of the Shrew, running July 11 - August 16) are a great place to take small children or even babies. If the kid gets cranky or antsy you can get up and move or even leave. You can come late, if the child was napping, and so on. I have no trouble seeing lots of outdoor theater with my 3yos (approximate same age as Rebecca's daughter). On the other hand, I will not be taking them to see Jack Goes Boating with me. That is my responsibility to both them and to the other audience members. In other words, I don't think it falls on the community of artists to think outside the box, at least not in the Bay area where every imaginable type of event is available—it's up to the audience member to find the performance/event/etc that matches what s/he is bringing and needs."

At July 10, 2009 at 11:51 PM , Blogger An Honest Critic said...

I feel overwhelmed by the latent assumptions exposed in this blog and it's responses. Though most inclined to agree with Erin Merritt when she says, "it's all about context," I think I'm more anchored by the phrase "it's all about expectation." If any broadening ever occurs in the creation and experience of art, I think it comes from the evolution of expectations regarding it. After all, isn't our understanding of art a social construct shaped by our expectations of it?

I am disturbed by that audience member who angrily told Rebecca Novick to 'control' her child, but I'm also disturbed by the rubrics casually set forth for experiencing art. I'm far more drawn to the question underlying our expectations of this experience, and that question is the same one arts non-appreciators are asking the arts community: what am I supposed to get out of this? Clearly, young Sophie and the angry audience member differed in their answer.

More importantly, I think this question is critical to any arts education, for it defines our understanding of the artist-art-audience relationship, it defines how an artist will shape their raw creativity so that someone else can experience it, it creates a sort of tabula-rasa. This question may not create arts-appreciators, or even arts-lovers (do we really want EVERYONE to love art? wouldn't that be sort of a dark reflection of contemporary homogeneity?), but I think it will definitely create more arts-understanders.

I dunno, this could all be ranting. Hope it was as interesting for you to read as it was for me to write! :-)

At November 21, 2009 at 9:56 PM , Blogger Conor said...

I am a professional classical musician, but started taking modern dance and ballet classes a couple of years ago. It has opened my eyes to some of the barriers inherent in the performance practices of the "high" performing arts. Dancers are expected to be silent. Musicians are expected to be (mostly) still. The audience is expected to be silent AND still. I'm honestly at a point where, for the most part, I'd rather put on a recording and have the freedom to move to it at will, or take a dance class, rather than pay to be imprisoned in my seat watching someone make music or perform dance that I would like to respond to physically. I can strongly empathize with Rebecca Novick's daughter - being passive often gets boring for me too. And I don't think I'm the only adult who feels this way. It's not a problem of appreciating art - my entire life revolves around thinking about, creating, and performing art - it's a problem of how art is presented. Specifically it's about "freedom". By stepping into a concert hall, we are entering into an unwritten social contract that consists mainly of "thou shalt nots!" and rules about clapping. That creates a barrier between me and the art. Is there an easy remedy? Definitely not. But that is actually exciting - there is uncharted creative territory out there! Let's all go explore it!

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