Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Invitation to the Party

A while back, I was asked to be a panelist at a local event: SQUART (Spontaneous Queer Art), curated by local artist Laura Arrington and sponsored by The Lab. At the event, 40-some artists assembled at the venue and were split into four teams and given parameters for a performance. Two short hours later, each team performed a piece that they had developed collaboratively. After each team presentation, four panelists from the field commented on the work (check out the January issue of Theatre Bay Area for some more thoughts on that experience!). Scores were given based on agreed-upon parameters (and even some wild-card parameters: on my night, nudity got extra points). The highest scoring presentation won a small cash prize.

I was, in a word, amazed. Even though some of the performers didn't know each other, let alone know their teammates' respective skills, I was completely impressed with how well they handled being thrust into a collaborative performance. The ability they all demonstrated in being able to come together, absorb the given parameters and present a performance was remarkable to me.

Acting as an audience member in the performances was just as exciting as being a panelist. The festival actively engaged audience members in the performances by adding an "audience participation" component to the given parameters. Because of this component, an interesting dynamic arose. One of the performances began in a darkened room and delivered very stern, clear instructions about how we, the audience members, should watch and behave during the piece. The piece continued and no further instructions were given. The performance progressed to the point that if an audience member (like myself) continued to follow the initial instructions, he wouldn't be able to see or hear anything that was happening. The other panelists quickly abandoned the initial instructions and followed the mass of people in the middle of the room to see what was happening. I found myself with a choice: do I follow? Or should I trust that the initial instructions will offer a payoff that I might miss otherwise? I opted for the latter and was somewhat bitter that there was no payoff and that, from my vantage point, I missed 95% of the performance.

I don’t mean to criticize the artists involved. In fact, I was told from the people who did experience the full performance that it was actually quite extraordinary. But my experience does highlight an interesting question: In the fully-staged productions that we work on for weeks, or months, or years, how do we give our audiences an invitation to the party? Or do we invite them at all?

As an avid theatergoer, I am in tune with the protocol of attending theatre. But do patrons new to theatre know what traditional protocols tend to be? They might wonder: Why is texting or tweeting during a show such a hot button? Why can’t I get up and walk on the stage during the show? How quiet should I be during the performance? What if I have to go to the bathroom? In an age of shrinking arts education in schools, where people often miss any early exposure to theatre, these are real questions. Does an audience member’s uncertainty around doing something wrong generate a fear that keeps them away? Have they attended theatre before and felt burned by doing something others thought was inappropriate?

During my SQUART experience, I didn't feel like a theatre veteran. I felt as a person entirely new to theatre might feel. How often do our audience members feel like they are missing out on the full experience of being an "insider?" Do they feel "invited" to the experience? And if not, what are we doing to welcome them? This issue isn't simply about house manager announcements or usher rules or instructions. This is about the artistic choices that we make. What do you do to involve theatre "outsiders?"

Check out the next SQUART happening Sunday January 09, 2011 at SomARTS. Info available at

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