Audience dynamics, for better or worse

A work colleague of mine--who also happens to be a student of my AJ blogging neighbor, Andrew Taylor, who directs an MBA arts administration program--recently shared with me an article by Lynne Conner of the University of Pittsburgh. As Taylor sums it up tidily, Conner's article is a "history of audience/art interaction (at least in Western tradition) since the Greeks. And her overview makes one wonder if the 'sit quietly in the dark in assigned seats' model isn't just a short-term anomaly of arts experience, rather than the standard form."

While I took issue with certain things in Conner's article (which may be yet unpublished--I'll have to check), I liked the fact that it touched on the flow between not just performer and audience, but among audience members. It got me thinking about times when I've felt that other audience members added to my experience and when I felt they detracted from it. (Of course, it's not other people's job to add to my experience or take it away from it, but there you go--I think we've all had experiences during which other people's behavior colored our perceptions.)

In his recent post about being on a panel with Lynne Conner, Andrew Taylor talks about another arts colleague, Elizabeth Streb of the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics in Brooklyn, who advocates an anything-goes approach (at least for her own space). There's more in Andrew's post "Rethinking the audience chamber," but here's a brief snippet in which he summarizes Streb's style:

"Elizabeth despises the constraint and construct of the traditional proscenium space. So her studio is a 'come as you are, come when you want, leave when you want, talk if you want' free-for-all—even during what we would usually call a performance. If your phone rings and you want to answer it, answer it. She figures you can decide if the work her dancers are doing is more worthy of your attention."

It's that last part, especially, that got to me. While I don't find the drift-in, drift-out approach all that odd, particularly for certain types of events (such as the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's showing earlier this month of a seven-hour-plus Beat film), my eyes goggled when I read the bit about audience members answering their phones. Isn't this part of what is driving some people away from movie theaters? I don't feel that performers should have to compete with distractions for my attention. For me, the question is this: What constitutes a meaningful, respectful exchange between performer and audience, and among audience members?

I'd like to hear others' opinions on that topic, but first, I'll close with my own theory and two examples (one of a good audience experience, one bad):

While the "sit quietly in the dark" model doesn't work for everyone and every event, I don't think it's completely broken or outmoded. At times, it can be wonderful. As we are continually reminded, we live in a fragmented culture with many things vying for our attention. Paying attention--paying REAL attention--can feel like a lost art sometimes, and I think giving one's attention over to a performing or visual art experience can be part of an ethic of respect towards the artist. Whether an experience is ultimately rewarding or disappointing, how will I know if I don't stop to pay attention?

A refusal to pay simple attention is part of what annoyed me about a 2004 Richard Thompson concert in Madison. I've seen the venerable Mr. Thompson numerous times in varied settings over the last 15 years, from a large rock club in Minneapolis, to smaller Madison theaters like the Barrymore and the Orpheum. The 2004 show was at a now-defunct Madison blues club and I was surrounded by a number of people who kept having loud, inane conversations once Thompson took the stage ("So, ya know, I had to take my Volvo into the shop..."). Yes, I realize bar shows without fixed, forward-facing seating are going to have a different vibe than theater shows, but still I felt really frustrated. Why pay good money to see a brilliant musician if you're not going to let yourself--and those around you--have that experience?

As for a much different, more positive experience... one of the best "energy flows" (forgive the New Age-ism) I've ever witnessed between performer, audience and fellow audience members was at a performance by Tim Miller at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center in about 1993 or '94. I attended with my brother and, on the surface, we're probably not Miller's typical audience base: we're not big performance-art fans and, as straight people, we can't directly identify with Miller's subject matter (that show dealt specifically with growing up and coming out as a gay man). But Miller's experiences were delivered with such open-hearted humor and honesty, how could one not get a kick out of it? And who can't identify with the weirdness and discomfort of growing up? Miller truly charmed his audience and there was a feeling of warmth and rapt attention in that Walker auditorium that sticks in my memory.

So, what are audience dynamics/expectations like in your town? And has the behavior of other audience members affected your experience in a memorable way, good or bad? Is "sitting quietly in the dark" passé?

November 29, 2007 9:00 AM |

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on November 29, 2007 9:00 AM.

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