FlyOver: November 2007 Archives
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While I took issue with certain things in Conner's article (which may be yet unpublished--I'll have to check), I liked the fact that it touched on the flow between not just performer and audience, but among audience members.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-alleven 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?
Isthmus, Madison's alt weekly, has a good interview this week with playwright Eric Simonson on "Lombardi / The Only Thing," which opens tomorrow night at Madison Repertory Theatre. The story is by Paul Kosidowski.
And Artforum.com has a review by Michelle Grabner of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's show by Tim Laun ("Sunday, September 20, 1992," aka the Brett Favre show), which closes Sunday.
Fall has descended quickly on Madison and threatens to leave just as hastily. Leaves came down in droves last weekend, and then the first ever-so-light snowflakes fell earlier this week, if only for 20 minutes. But while I should have been raking industriously, I was absorbed instead by a fantastic book by a (former) Wisconsin writer: Falling Through the Earth, the memoir by La Crosse native Danielle Trussoni.
Of course, I'm late to the party. Falling Through the Earth came out last year and was chosen by the New York Times as one of 2006's ten best books. It's one of those books I meant to get around to, but didn't. I was nudged by her recent appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival (which, actually, I couldn't attend--but the Fest schedule is a wonderful reminder of things I should be reading!).
Falling Through the Earth is Trussoni's deeply felt but unsentimental story of her childhood in La Crosse (a town of about 52,000 on the Mississippi River), being raised by a father with severe PTSD from Vietnam that was not diagnosed until much later--and never treated. The aftershocks of the war controlled not only Dan Trussoni's life, but that of his kids and his spouses (there were three). Here's what the Times had to say:
This intense, at times searing memoir revisits the author's rough-and-tumble Wisconsin girlhood, spent on the wrong side of the tracks in the company of her father, a Vietnam vet who began his tour as "a cocksure country boy" but returned "wild and haunted," unfit for family life and driven to extremes of philandering, alcoholism and violence. Trussoni mixes these memories with spellbinding versions of the war stories her father reluctantly dredged up and with reflections on her own journey to Vietnam, undertaken in an attempt to recapture, and come to terms with, her father's experiences as a "tunnel rat" who volunteered for the harrowing duty of scouring underground labyrinths in search of an elusive and deadly enemy.
I'll admit that part of the reason Trussoni's book fascinates me is that her growing-up years were so unlike mine. While we have a few superficial things in common--both women in their 30s who grew up in the Upper Midwest--Trussoni comes from a large, Catholic, working-class family all rooted in the same place. My own small, dispersed family is quite different. And the Vietnam experience--first- OR second-hand--is largely foreign to me, something I know only from history books. My father was in the military, too, but in a different era, different branch, different job (he was a Navy translator in the '50s). Trussoni's book is rich on so many levels: as a Vietnam book, a book about the tense and complex relationship between a father and a daughter, and as a portrait of Wisconsin working-class life filled with the texture and vividness one expects from fiction.
And, while I'm thinking of contemporary Wisconsin nonfiction writers, a suggestion for further reading... anything by Michael Perry, also of west-central Wisconsin, but especially Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, his tale of returning home to rural New Auburn, Wis., and serving as a volunteer EMT and firefighter. It's hard to resist a book with an opening sentence like this: "Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun."