I’m sitting on a blanket on the lawn of the Boston Common, sipping my Pinot Grigio out of a water bottle (like half the audience) and finishing my sandwich (pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese=good). On my right a family group with several young children are huddled around a smart phone looking at a video and laughing (the mother too). Just a few minutes ago they were all laughing at Sir Toby as he took a delightfully silly flying leap to avoid being seen by Malvolio. A few minutes before that they were arguing over the fair distribution of a bag of candy. And before that one of them was asking the mother for an explanation of Viola’s boy get-up (“what happened to her pretty dress?”). In front and to my left an older couple continually bow into an easy tête-à-tête in order to compare notes about what they just heard, repeating lines and, at times, correcting each other’s hearing and recollection. Behind me a teenage boy is kicking me in the head with his dirty high tops (“oh, man, sorry lady”) and listening to something on his iPhone (ear buds in, but I can still hear the tinny ring of a rap song). In front and to my right an extremely pregnant twenty-something, lounging back in a low beach chair, is getting her feet rubbed by a heavily tattooed man while they alternately watch the show and throw each other re-assuring glances. And to my left, my companion lies on her back looking straight up at the night sky and laughing out loud at all the good jokes.
My provisional neighbors and I are all gathered together on the Boston Common to “watch” the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Twelfth Night. We are the 21st century version of what cultural sociologist Richard Butsch calls an “embedded audience”: an audience whose main focus is as much on immediate social interaction as it is on the arts event per se. The ambient noise, though over-decibeled by the mic’d actors and the booming sound system, is steady throughout, as is the constant dance of moving bodies: bugs to swipe, wine to sip, food to munch, texts to read or to send, sitting up, lying down, off to the port-o-potty or the Ben and Jerry’s booth, then back to the blanket with ice cream to eat, more bugs to swipe, a text to respond to . . .).
Some might argue that this odd assortment of midsummer night’s strangers aren’t really paying attention to the show.
But what is attention, anyway? And what does it really mean in terms of audience engagement? It is useful to be reminded that for thousands of years Western audiences were able to consume, enjoy, process, and understand an arts experience without the kind of silent and still spectatorship we expect in most arts venues today. Despite the historical evidence to the contrary, however, contemporary understandings about arts reception—significantly tied up with rules about arts etiquette—continue to support the notion that we cannot fully understand a work of art unless we are absolutely quiet and still. As musicologist William Webber puts it, we are conditioned by a “post-Romantic point of view,” which distrusts any fusion between arts consumption and mundane social behaviors because such a fusion might “violate the integrity” of the art itself.
From a cognitive perspective, just how accurate is this assumption? Is it really true that sports spectators are not being attentive when they talk or move around or do the wave? And, more to the point, why do we care about being quiet at symphony hall when we don’t care about being quiet at a jazz club? Are we arguing that symphonic music is more sophisticated (and thus requires more attention) than jazz? And even more to the point, are we arguing that Shakespeare in the park, where we tolerate all manner of auxiliary activity, is somehow lesser in stature than Shakespeare at, say, the A.R.T.?
Or is it that we are just simply more accustomed to different definitions of attention based on the rules of the venue. When it comes to the serious arts, an assumption about the reciprocal relationship between silent, still listening and deeper attention (and thus appreciation) has long informed the way in which cultural history has been narrated and the way in which artists and producers have measured the success of their work (“The audience was rapt with attention.”). Beginning in the late eighteenth century, for example, concerns over proper etiquette inside music venues were conflated with the aesthetic theory of “attentive listening,” a term used to describe the kind of intellectual effort thought necessary to fully appreciate sophisticated music. Musicologist Matthew Riley notes that this emerging standard was a by-product of Enlightenment notions of “absolute music” and “art religion” that demanded a “reverential attitude on the part of the listener that previously would have been more appropriate in a place of worship.”
Personally, I’m fine taking my art outside of church. The steady hum of noise and constant flow of motion on Boston Common last Thursday night was not a distraction from but rather a part—a legitimate part—of the (very fine, by the way) Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Twelfth Night. I reveled in every word and gesture, on stage and off.
Except for the kick in the head, which I’ll admit I could have done without.