To Whom We Serve
I have to confess, I do get a little tired when reading discussions on the current state of theatre, theatre funding, funding cuts, commercial versus non-profit, etc., etc., and repeatedly seeing a word bandied about like some old rag doll with its stuffing hanging out…the word in question being “audience.” For many, it seems, that word has come to describe some homogenous blob of humanity that has one face and operates completely in tandem. “The audience” wouldn’t be there for a show like that, it’s too edgy. “The audience” is tired of endless revivals and jukebox musicals. We’d like to program more new writing in our season, but “our audience” doesn’t like taking risks.
I find this all very strange, not to mention patronizing, whichever side of the fence it’s coming from. Audiences come in all shapes and sizes, with only one single trait common to all: an appreciation of the performing arts. Yes, there are those that prefer their theatre experience to veer to the lighter side; shows that have hummable tunes, humor that won’t scare the horses, or are populated with hit songs from a bygone era. Then there are those that like the excitement of seeing something new, something just now being discovered; something that might challenge them, perhaps intellectually, morally, or in its form or structure. And there are those that fall somewhere in between or straddle the divide.
Many audience members (a great number of whom certainly couldn’t be considered wealthy) are willing to throw down a ridiculous amount of money to see shows like “Wicked” or “Mama Mia!” Others (some quite moneyed) will hike to a hole-in-the-wall space in a different part of town, sitting in conditions that are often cramped and uncomfortable, all to experience something new, with no guarantee of satisfaction.
Sometimes, I believe, people in the industry get so bogged down in the business of what they’re doing that they forget who they’re actually doing it for. Economics, logistics, and demographics bury them so deeply in their own money-crunching logic that they lose sight of the human element. As Bob Dylan said, “You gotta serve somebody.” If you’re in the theatre business, you serve the “audience.” You don’t underestimate their intelligence; neither do you pander to them. You just respect them. I am the audience. You are the audience.
In the words of Noel Coward: “To an audience---shock them, amuse them, entertain them but never bore them.”
P.S: If anyone’s interested, Paul got both of his two final predictions right in the final (somewhat to my chagrin). I bow down (yes, to an octopus).