A couple weeks back I wrote a post about the latest research report from the Irvine Foundation, in response to which several people posted smart comments. My post dealt to a large extent with Irvine’s general recommendation to arts nonprofits to respond to audience demand for more active participation. Around the same time my post was published, the performing arts world (the theater world, in particular) was buzzing a bit about two audience member cell phone infractions that made the news. First, at the July 2nd performance of Hand to God in New York City, a young patron rose from his seat, ambled onto the stage, and plugged his cell phone into a fake outlet on the set just before the performance was set to begin; then, a week later, at a performance of Shows for Days at Lincoln Center Patti LuPone snatched a cell phone out of the hands of a patron who wouldn’t stop texting.* Lupone says she may walk off the boards for good she’s so unnerved and annoyed by audiences who can no longer restrain themselves. The misguided patron says he was drunk and didn’t understand he was breaking any rules.
Some have weighed in over the past few weeks to express sympathy and irritation at the constant threat of intrusion by phones at performances generally, while others have suggested that it’s time for performers and producers to loosen up and evolve their practices and expectations. Among those in the we-need-to-adapt camp is Scott Walters, who wrote a widely read post for The Clyde Fitch Report—Patti LuPone and Cellphone-gazi. Scott acknowledges that his own thinking on the issue has changed since he was an actor back-in-the-day; he now thinks, “If we really want theater to become a vibrant part of our culture again, [then] we need to get over this obsession about quiet.”
Lynne Conner and The Quieting of the Audience
Walters defends his stance in part with the argument that the quiet audience is a relatively new phenomenon and that for centuries the audience at the theater was an active participant. The same argument appeared a week after Walter’s post in a San Francisco Classical Voice article on what the arts can learn from sports marketing. The article by Mark MacNamara opened:
It’s important to keep remembering that the prim and passive persona of the performing arts audience these days is relatively new. Broadly speaking, the audience experience of old — from say, the Theatre of Dionysus to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées — was in tone often much like right-wing talk radio: political, raucous, even violent and unhinged, but also profoundly communal, and thoroughly democratic.
We can thank, in part, theater historian (and AJ Blogger) Lynne Conner for much of our renewed awareness that being quiet in the theater is a modern phenomenon. In numerous articles and books, Conner has reminded us that it was only in the 19th century that the audience lost its authority at the live theater; after centuries of talking back to, and talking about, the theater, patrons were put in the dark (thanks to the invention of the electric lightbulb), instructed to mind their manners, and intimidated into leaving interpretation to the experts. MacNamara writes:
The gist of [Lynne Conner’s] argument is that modern audiences have lost their “sovereignty” and the meme of the day remains, “Sophisticated audiences do not interfere with great art, and unsophisticated people should confine themselves to other spaces.”
While she has a relatively new book out that explores this arena, Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, I first encounted Conner’s thoughts on this topic in a chapter in the 2009 Steven Tepper/Bill Ivey compilation Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life. Conner urged organizations to consider ways to democratize the arts and make them more engaging. I found her research and reflections inspiring. That same year I was giving a talk called “surviving the culture change” in which I was making arguments along the same lines.
While I have been among those nudging arts organizations to think about how to make the live arts experience more relevant, meaningful, and dynamic, over the past few years I have begun to feel we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Yes, some arts organizations need to lighten up and stop scolding the audience; yes, some arts programming is hopelessly out of touch with changing values and demographics in many cities; and yes, as a result of overemphasizing the lines between amateurs and professionals, some arts organizations have inadervertently discouraged a relationship to the arts among most people.
However, it is important to bear in mind that the revocation of audience control in the 19th century emerged in response to concerns that certain audience members were becoming too distracted and disruptive. That they were showing up at the theater more focused on socializing (flirting, drinking, eating, and chatting) than on the action on stage. Such behaviors began to cause consternation among performers and, notably, more sophisticated (read: wealthy and educated) patrons. While we now use the term passive in a somewhat derogatory manner to describe this newly restrained audience, this was not always the case. At the time, the taming of the audience was generally perceived to be beneficial. When the ragers and revelers left the building, those that remained began to pay more attention to what was happening on stage.
So here we are again. The consumer is king and some audiences have, once again, become too distracted and disruptive. Some want to outlaw cell phones and create stricter guidelines, even if that drives certain patrons away (a move which seems to be history repeating itself). Others argue that there will be no audiences in the future if the live arts–across the board–don’t adapt to the changing times. Scott Walters suggests in his post that theater needs to step up its game rather than beef up its policing efforts:
We can’t keep the 21st century outside the theater much longer. People come through the doors (if we’re lucky) and they are carrying cell phones. That’s a fact. Sometimes they forget to turn those cell phones off, and they ring. Get used to it. It happens everywhere, and it will continue happening. Accept it, and make it irrelevant. Earn attention, don’t expect it. Overcome the distraction of the age by being so compelling that people can’t look away, and can’t be distracted by someone texting.
As much as I agree with Walters that the theater cannot command attention but must earn it, I worry about the loss of the arts experience that merits and rewards a quieting and a focus. For too many years we’ve shamed people into paying homage to art they don’t understand or like; now it seems we may be heading toward an overcorrection in which we shower people with stuff that will hook their attention in fifteen seconds and that they can immediately grasp.
Perhaps we could aim for someplace in between?
Active and passive participation are historically contingent concepts whose meanings have changed over time. Moreover, our sentiments about the virtues and vices of each have also changed. I’m not opposed to the development of more active forms of participation in the live arts; to the contrary, the rampant experimentation is exciting. I just hope we are not throwing in the towel on so-called passive arts experiences.
What I learned teaching a course in aesthetic (and human) development
Despite the need to change some practices, we still need environments that enable the focused attention that some art works (whether performing or visual) require and merit. Unlike beauty in nature, the internal logic of a piece of art cannot always be grasped instantly. Aesthetic judgments in art can’t be made on objective measures or even, quite often, from immediate sensory perceptions. While one might have an initial sensory response, an aesthetic judgment comes from within and often requires a quieting, a focus. Conner and others problematize the quieting of the audience because it reduces the audience’s sovereignty. But quieting the audience could also be interpreted as creating the optimal conditions for someone to have an aesthetic encounter.
The course on beauty and aesthetic development that I taught this past spring at the University of Wisconsin School of Business (to 22 undergraduate business majors) was, to a large extent, about doing just that. The students of the course discovered something about being present in the world in a different way when they turned off their phones, focused their attention on a sunset, stopped multitasking and really listened to a symphony from beginning to end, sat in the balcony of the Overture Center and watched Hubbard Street Dance, or stood silently in front of an artwork for 30 minutes (an activity captured in photo at the top of this post).
The class was an experiment and many of the choices I made this first time around were developed out of personal experience (thinking about how my own tastes and capacity to make meaning from arts experiences evolved over time) and from reading research on the nature of the aesthetic experience. One seminal book that guided my thinking was The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick Emry Robinson. Csikszentmihalyi equates the aesthetic experience to that of flow. He arrived at this conclusion as a result of a qualitative and quantitative study of experts in the art world (who, unsurprisingly, have aesthetic experiences more frequently than most of us). Flow is an experience in which one is deeply absorbed, one loses a sense of time, and one feels joy and mastery while performing an activity (whether writing a section of a novel,operating on someone, having a conversation, playing a video game, or experiencing a great artwork). In other words, the meaningful aesthetic encounter is not a passive one.
Importantly, it is difficult to achieve flow if one is stretched too far beyond one’s natural capabilities; arguably, many audiences come to arts events without the requisite knowledge or previous experience to feel mastery.
In planning the course I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out the optimal order of experiences; and I made adjustments over the course of the term in response to subtle forms of feedback from the students. At each step, I wanted them to feel challenged but never incompetent. Moreover, I refrained from giving assessments for several weeks. I wanted the students to focus on the experience itself; and I wanted them to cultivate the ability to make and articulate (internal) aesthetic judgments. I also frequently encouraged them to generate a creative response to each experience (make a drawing, write a haiku, etc.) If I teach the class again I will continue to experiment with its methods. I’ve become compelled by this notion of finding better ways to help people cultivate an aesthetic sensibility. My aim is not for them to become patrons of the arts, per se (although that could be a beneficial outcome, as well); I simply believe that there is great value in this way of experiencing and approaching life.
If we want people to feel engaged (rather than bored) at orchestral concerts, museums, dance performances, and theater pieces there are many approaches we can try. We can try letting them keep their phones on and Tweet from the back row. We can try producing more spectacular works and encouraging people to jump out of their seats and shout back at the stage when they feel moved to do so. We can try taking performances and exhibitions to nontraditional settings and letting people eat, drink, and socialize as they experience the arts event. And we can try inviting the people to create the work and bring it to life with us. Many organizations are trying these very methods–and many others–with great success. Alongside these experiments in active participation strategies, however, I hope some arts organizations will also (continue to?) experiment with ways to make the so-called “passive” artistic experience more meaningful and rewarding, especially for newcomers. Something wonderful can also come from sitting quietly, doing nothing, and focusing one’s attention on the work.
* An earlier version of this post stated that LuPone stopped the performance to take the cell phone from the patron but this has been corrected to reflect that she took the phone during a stage exit during which her character was blocked to shake hands with audience members.
Richard Kooyman says
One only has to witness the incessant selfies and the amassing of iPhone images at every major art museum to conclude that the art experience isn’t about having the viewer do whatever they want at the moment.
On a recent trip to the Uffizi Gallery I watched one young man walk from one painting to the next pausing just long enough to click his phone. Some could argue whether he was experiencing the paintings in his own way but that just seems like neoliberal babble from Apple or Samsung. The man might have been playing with his phone in a world class museum but one thing he wasn’t doing was experiencing the paintings right in front of him.
Walters and Conner might long for the day where people can heckle, text, tweet, and phone their friends but I suggest people might be better off if we teach them to stop and listen to what the artists have to say.
Linda Essig says
Diane: Clay Lord wrote a provocative piece in the inaugural issue of “Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts” that likewise warns – at least implictly – against “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” It can be accessed here: http://artivate.hida.asu.edu/index.php/artivate/article/view/52
Diane Ragsdale says
Linda, thanks for the reminder about Clay’s article on this topic and for sending the link!
Penny Brill says
Another idea: borrow the format for a meditation or raga and start with an induction or transition from street (where you are now) to a calmer, more grounded place, then begin to energize and expand, (where or what do you want your audience to explore?) transition to the present moment and exit…..
yes! i’ve been saying this too!
One thing to remember about 18th- and 19th-century audiences in Europe socializing, eating, and so on during performances: many of them were watching the opera or play from boxes, where it’s easier to do such things without disturbing the rest of the house (one could even close the curtain) than in the rows of seats we have today.
Oh, and to be fair to Patti, she did not, in fact, stop the performance of Shows for Days to confiscate that woman’s cell phone. She was making an exit during which she was blocked to shake hands with an audience member; instead of shaking the woman’s hand, she took her phone and went off into the wings.
Patti claims she has never stopped a play or musical (as opposed to a concert performance) because of a cell phone; indeed, she says the only time she ever stopped a play at all was that time – the next-to-last performance of Gypsy on Broadway – someone was taking photos near the stage just as she was about to launch into “Rose’s Turn.” (She said that taking pictures where the actress can see you at that point in that show “was like poking a bear.”)
Diane Ragsdale says
Thanks for clarifying this!
Gordy Ohliger says
I feel this piece would have been more effective,..and reached a wider audience, if you had edited it shorter..
As to the subject at hand, if you are not playing a bar, then there is no point in dumbing down your performance for those that lack good manners. Let’s consider attending a live performance as part of their education. Here is another lesson on how to be an adult. If one calms down, has focus, and purposely enters a performance space, amazing things may be revealed. “May” if one meets it halfway, with attention…Respect.
Laurie Dean Torrell says
This is such an interesting issue … As a literary arts presenter, we struggle with it too. Just Buffalo brings the world’s great writers to Buffalo and then – we want people to put their phones away and take in the actual presentation (which can be abruptly halted by a cell phone going off; or can involve director intervention later if someone had to endure their neighbor texting during the entire evening)… We’ve done poetry with a food smorgasbord and later struggled with people coming only for the food …My wish … I want to work towards helping people, our audience, fully VALUE the experience of being fully present for the short amount of time we’re together for these readings … Build in a margin around it for the photo opps, the facebook photos and tweeting … But then, lay the phone down … treat it as you’d treat a meal with your beloved – as something to be savored and not compromised by incessant multi-tasking. You will have most of the hours of your life free to be on your phone, tweeting, texting, making your contribution. You may have 1-2 hours with people who have devoted their lives to making art. Is it wrong to suggest that this should be respected and savored?
i’m all for experimentation and innovation.
i also want to enter a theatre and experience Songs of the Wanderers by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan and be transported and transformed without distraction.
can we have it all?
Joseph J Gonzales says
I personally believe the two can peacefully co-exist, but that it takes smart, caring artists and staff to make it happen. For example, venues need to inform their prospective ticket buyers and attending audiences about their expectations for their behavior. If you have “no cell phone” performances or “cell phones welcome” performances, be clear about how you expect your audience to comply and what is acceptable. Museums can do the same if they choose to have “no cell phone” and “cell phone friendly” galleries. Ambiguous visitor policies do neither your staff nor your audiences very good. Communicate with your audiences, they’re usually pretty good when you explain to them why your rules are in place. In this day and age, I think arts venues should thoughtfully incorporate digital participation into their practice — the positive benefits, especially for promoting the arts and encouraging arts participation among wider publics are to important to shut down over dated class, taste, and decorum arguments. Social technologies also offer exciting creative and co-creative possibilities for artists, directors, curators, and other art venue creatives who are open to exploration and experimentation. It is a challenge that should be embraced, with the help of audiences, of course.
This brings to mind the “engagement” you see among African-American audiences, who respond quite audibly throughout performances of “Chitlin Circuit” plays. Of course, I’ve never witnessed it at an August Wilson play–probably because the audiences and the venues are White.
Scott Walters says
Hi Diane! Thank you for the thoughtful response to this issue and my article.
What is often missed by those who criticize my article is that I am not defending the texter, nor suggesting that having phone conversations during “The Cherry Orchard” is just something we should expect. What I am arguing is that the rules concerning what is “appropriate” may not be serving the art form.
It would be hard to argue that a silent, focused spectator will likely “get more” from a performance of “Hamlet.” But the reality is that Shakespeare, who was nothing if not a savvy theatrical showman, wrote his play for a much different theatrical contract. And unlike today;s playwrights, Shakespeare had a vested interest in pleasing that audience, since he was part-owner of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and his income came as a percentage of the ticket sales.
I’d like to draw attention to a specific sentence in your article: “Despite the need to change some practices, we still need environments that enable the focused attention that some art works (whether performing or visual) require and merit.” For me, the operative word is “some,” but in today’s theater world, especially in the US, it is the default and people get all huffy if anyone violates the rules. I am encouraging playwrights to stop writing for the silent, invisible audience and instead try to figure out how to take advantage the thing that mmakes theater more than very expensive TV: the fact that the actors and audience share the same place and time.
One side note: I recommend Lawrence Levine’s excellent book “Highbrow/Lowbrow” as another examination of the creation of a cultural hierarchy in the US.
Lynne Conner says
Hello Diane and happy summer! Thanks for this smart essay and for considering my scholarship as part of your thinking process.
You end the essay by calling for arts organizations to “experiment with ways to make the so-called ‘passive’ artistic experience more meaningful and rewarding.” I want to take this opportunity to let you (and your readers) know that my new-ish book (Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, 2013) does just that. In it, I offer a plan for creating a culture of “Arts Talk,” a new modality that reframes the critical role that authentic and productive conversation can play in the organization of a healthy arts ecology. Arts Talk connotes not just literal talk, but also a spirit of active inquiry among people who share an interest in the arts. The model is predicated on the idea that significant opportunities for engagement come before and after the arts event when audiences are invited to formulate and express an opinion in a social (often public) context: what I refer to as “social interpretation.”
As you point out, I have written extensively about the physically active nature of the historic audience (from ancient Greece to the early 20th century). But I think it is important to stress here that from my very first publication on this topic (2004), I have attempted to make the argument that what contemporary audiences most need (and most lack) is NOT the chance to make noise in the auditorium but rather the chance to make meaning in a publicly recognized way.
These are not necessarily the same thing. As I illustrate in Chapter 2 of my book, prior to the 20th century audience-generated social interpretation talking place outside the arts venue included everything from animated debates in coffee houses to street-level gossip to arguments waged in pamphlet wars to discussions hosted by audience leagues and arts appreciation societies. Audience members were comfortable discussing their taste and in openly formulating their opinions about a particular arts event. And while cultural gatekeepers certainly existed, they did not have the authority to regulate (or dampen) community discourse.
Why? The evidence from period accounts indicates that before the end of the 19th century talking about the arts was a normal part of daily life in Europe and the United States. Like contemporary sports talk, arts talk was democratic and prolific. In Parisian coffee houses, theater patrons sat side-by-side with actors and playwrights to argue the value of the repertoire. In Milan, new operas were, according to period accounts, the “sole topic in the streets, in cafes, in homes.” In London and New York, amateur musicians and music enthusiasts created musical societies in order to perform together and to exchange opinions about new composers, the changing repertoire and the quality of emerging professional artists.
The problem with the engineered quieting of the audience that began in the late 19th century is not that the audience was forced to be literally quiet while experiencing the arts. The problem is that because of the sacralization of culture that accompanied the quieting process, the audience’s interpretive agency was quieted. In other words, when audiences became physically quiet they also were edged out of the meaning making operation. Audience sovereignty over meaning and value was actively discouraged, turning what had long been a three-dimensional arts experience—witnessing an arts event/object and having the opportunity to participate in the articulation of its meaning and value—into a two-dimensional encounter often lacking the depth and pleasure of social interpretation. And so they became passive, but not in the way you are arguing for (as focused, concentrated receptors). They became disengaged. By and large, they have stayed that way. That’s why we can’t fill our concert halls anymore.
As I argue in my book and AJ blog (“We the Audience”), increasing opportunities for public meaning making is one cure for what ails us. A culture of Arts Talk promotes authentic conversation about the arts experience by creating venues for public meaning making about and around the arts. What could be more satisfying to me as an audience member than experiencing a work of art not as a product with a fixed meaning but rather as a process of meaning making dependent on my input? And what can be more satisfying than sharing that process with other audience members and the artists themselves?
This does not mean that meaning making on an individual, personal level is not important or valued. The private/internal contemplation of an arts experience is of course a part of every audience member’s experience: the brain is busy making meaning of everything it encounters. (And, for some people, as you rightly point out, a quiet environment is the optimal condition for an aesthetic encounter.) By stressing the importance of social interpretation I am not creating a hierarchy of value about how meaning should be made. And I’m not saying that every audience member wants or needs to express his opinion publicly.
Instead, I am attempting to acknowledge a fact about human psychology that the contemporary arts industry seems to willfully ignore: people like to interpret the meaning and value of the things that matter to them and many like to do that in a social context. There is a clear relationship, for example, between our culture’s steady interest in attending a sporting event, watching a television show, or joining a social reading on-line site, and the opportunity to participate in constructing its meaning.
I think we need those opportunities in the arts as well.
Leonard Jacobs says
I think it’s worth noting that people also had sex at the theatre. I had to, pardon the pun, poke around a bit, but there’s a book, City of Eros, that describes prostitution in the balconies of theatres in New York. I lifted this pull-quote from another website, but I checked the text to confirm it:
“Leading establishments like the Bowery, Chatham, Olympic, and Park theatres permitted prostitution in the uppermost tier of seats. ‘Public prostitution [in the theater] is not noticed by law,’ admitted one observer. First-time middle-class visitors incredulously conceded that they ‘had not even dreamed of the improprieties then publicly tolerated in the third tier and galleries.’ ”
What does this have to do with anything? Technically nothing, really. But suggesting that in centuries past people only ate or gossiped presents a sanitized picture of something that I think, frankly, was even more raucous that we can likely imagine..
Which really only strengthens Scott’s point that what we now have is a Theatre-as-Church system. Yes, yes: you can toss out the moral battle-cry of “public courtesy,” you can hurl the ethical battle-cry of “interpersonal consideration in a public space,” you can sign on to bullying and blustering people into never disrespecting the actors or the creative team involved in the performance, and you can trot out the financial argument all you want (“I paid $5,000 to see “Phantom” and I want what I want, including a standing ovation so I feel great about the money I spent!”), You can make the legal argument, since using a cell phone in a place of public assembly is — in New York City, that is — illegal, if unenforceable. Have at it.
But at the end of the day, all that argumentation, all that humanitarian mewing, bawling and bleating still fails to address the fact that if someone is more interested in their cell phone than in the play, for whatever the reason, we are being confronted with a question. Why? In answering that question there is another one: Does theatre itself, as a form, bear absolutely no responsibility whatsoever — zero, nil, zilch — for this state of affairs? And if that IS what we’re saying, then I say WOW. For we really do think highly of ourselves, don’t we? We really are arrogant assholes.
It amazes me how those people who express the highest dudgeon over Scott’s post can’t actually refute him unless they ascribe viewpoints to him that he has, in fact, not adopted. Scott pointed this out in his own comment up above. Rather than defend the texter at the Patti LuPone play, he asked theatre — its makers and shapers, its proponents and detractors, its critics and philosophers — the question as I have framed it: Does the theatre, as a form, bear zero responsibility for this state of affairs.? And what we have learned is that many people have answered, and will continue to answer, “Yes.” It’s the fault of the audience. Screw them.
Well, Scott isn’t satisfied with “Screw them” and neither am I. And, respectfully, this utopian notion that we might find a third way and hold hands and look for compromises so everybody can get along really just defeats the purpose of this exercise. There’s nothing wrong with asking the theatre to examine itself. Indeed, when the theatre refuses to question itself, it says more about us than about some dude in the dark who can’t stop touching his cell phone. The moment that we, in our defensive and uncompromising intellectual crouch, refuse to examine what makes theatre compelling is the moment in which we alienate the cell phone dude from the experience in the first place. If we demand that theatre is all about us and not about them, then I guess we’re all masturbating on stage. Which is ironic, given that I began this response by talking about sex in the balcony.
Treating the audience like an inconvenience, not a necessity, is the definition of hubris and the antithesis of self-reflection. Put another way, it’s hard for a person to give a damn when the subtle (or not-so-subtle) message is that you’re taken for granted. It sure might encourage somebody to seek solace, and entertainment, from their cell phone. And so, unfortunately, they do.
Richard Kooyman says
This all has to be about something else than audience involvement or a return to the olden days? I haven’t quite figure it all out yet but there is more to this store.
I’m not sure some klutz thinking any power outlet is his to use is a very good poster child for the idea that audiences have a pent up desire to “make meaning”, whatever that is suppose to curtail.
We have had years where audiences came dress for a soaking at Gallagher comedy shows or played the roles in Rocky Horror showings but even that is hardly reason to suggest anything less is just actors “masturbating” on stage.
No this is something more. It’s also darn confusing. Why do so many who blog and post on this artsJournal site talk about theater but categorize the subject of conversation around “arts organizations”. Not every arts organization is about theater. And the concerns of a theater company is quite different than a art museum. Or are this engagement proponents suggesting that there is also a pent up demand for viewers to start participating in the paintings on museum walls? What about all of this makes me think of Donald Trump?
Scott Walters says
The problem with the discussion is that people become fixated on the specific event rather than the larger issue of which it is emblematic: the churchification of theater.
I recently raised this issue with the president of our city’s performing arts center, and he said that “many in today’s audiences act as if they were raised by wolves.”. When I have paid $100 or more for a theater ticket, I am entitled to a performance time that is NOT ABOUT YOU. So stop the late arrivals, the constant chatter, surreptitious photo-taking and videoing of the performance, and the reading of your email. We can all see what you are doing from our vantage points behind and above you and the lights on your cellphone are annoying. May I facetiously recommend that you save your texting while you are driving home which likely you also do. These ego-centric behaviors have no place in the theater.
Scott Walters says
I continue to be astonished at people who think buying an “expensive ” ticket entitles one to control the behavior of everyone else. Do you think you can do the same at a restaurant?
The “raised by wolves” line is classic patrician speak. Pure snobbery.
I am all for active participation in an arts setting, but a museum is vastly different from a theater. A museum patron’s selfie won’t detract from the ability of a painting to be a painting. However, photography and texting in a theater will arguably affect a performer’s ability to work his/her craft. How do you reconcile the desire for active audience participation with the artist’s desire to successfully do the work?
Scott Walters says
Celine — I would emphasize the “arguably” in your sentence. As I have pointed out before, actors were acting in much more “distracting” conditions than the occasional texter or phone ring for most of the 2500 years of theatre history. This idea that these distractions somehow threaten a performer’s ability to perform illustrates the absurdities to which the theater has fallen victim. If an actor needs to be in a trance to perform, then theater is dead.
Diane Ragsdale says
Those participating in this conversation may be find the following post by Kevin Doyle (sponsored by nobody) worthwhile. It’s a beautiful and meaty reflection on Robert Hughes’ The New Shock of the New and his notion of “slow” art applied to the dance world. It’s a long read, but I found it quite worthwhile.
Here’s the link: http://thewavemakerfaltered.tumblr.com/post/125252722251/not-another-a%D1%8Fts-blog-post-version-12 …
… And here is a taste of the piece:
In his descriptions of contemporary painting – Hughes repeats a comparison between the immediate and the gradual; between quick art that is easily digestible – and art that reveals itself through a “slow disclosure.” Hughes takes issue with contemporary art that aspires to be an “instant hit” in the sole pursuit of “making sellable images.” Hughes connects these sensational, trivial trends in contemporary art with the constant “barrage of information that assails us” in our daily lives. Rather than interrogate this barrage – segments of the contemporary art world seek only a fusion with it; content to merge with this “buzz and rumble of endless imagery” in order to make a profit. We do not need more “fast food” from the art world. Rather, we need “slow art” – work that operates as a counterpoint to the sensational; demanding “active engagement” as opposed to a quick, 10-second gaze.
This vocabulary Hughes establishes is applicable to the works of Miranda and Vandevelde; neither of which are easily digestible. This does not mean they are intentionally seeking to disturb or shock us with gratuitous violence, baseless nudity or overt vulgarity. We are not in the realm of a Karen Finley (god bless her, respect). Rather, it is the inherent structure each choreographer employs that commands our attention. It is the structure that allows a “slowness” to unfold during performance; resisting the quick and easy. The structure functions not only to serve each choreographer’s dramaturgy, but interrupts the steady stream of media noise and technical images. We are not watching an episode of Dancing With The Stars, nor have we sat down for the next installment of The Avengers.
David Dower says
Hello, folks– sorry to be so slow to arrive at this conversation. It’s an area that I spend a lot of time and energy on, along with my staff colleagues, at ArtsEmerson. Not so much because the audience needs to be quieted here, but because we are trying to actually put our venues, programming, and resources in service of a city-wide effort to transform the identity of Boston from one of segregated, siloed, parallel play to one more rooted our its diversity. Though you’d never know it from our image, there is no longer a cultural majority in Boston– we are all minorities here now.
This may sound like I’m coming into this from left field, but it is at the root of these questions of how the audience “behaves” and what rules apply in these venues.
I find myself very uncomfortable with the kind of uni-directional nature of the invitation to “others” in these conversations, generally. We tend to talk in terms of “us’ and ‘them’. “We” are the people who know the rules and what the experience “should” be. We may not have made them, but we’ve inherited and upheld them. “We” have created the programming, the pricing, the schedule, and even the means of making meaning– and in line with our own biases. And “we” are mostly white, mostly well educated, mostly upper middle class, and these rules emanate from those that apply in “our” social sphere. So, as it is implied in one of the comments above, the call and response behavior so common in many cultures in the presence of live arts is frowned on in “our” house. So, too, is arriving in the middle of a thing. Some behaviors are cultural. Some are not. Some are about not understanding the tacit agreements that were made amongst those in the know about how this experience will be properly received. Some are about a lack of engagement or interest. Some are about intentional disruption. In short, these are public venues, and when we are doing our jobs properly the whole range of public responses will be present in them.
As I try, every day, to create a public square of our venues where we can practice our minority reality, and build an audience for the programming that mirrors the make-up of the city of Boston, I discover just how many ways we are unprepared for being together as a city. Is it any wonder that we don’t know how to be together in a theater when we live entirely segregated lives around class, race, and neighborhood? It goes well beyond the etiquette of cell phones. It’s about a thin veneer of commitment to “diversity” among essentially good people pasted over a deep desire in those same people for control of the rules. We want to have our experiences of art exclusively in the presence of others who experience art exactly as we do. We want inclusivity as long as everyone behaves the way we do. We want the appearance of diversity so we can feel good about being there– people of color or young people being prized because they are the easiest to spot in the crowd– but only if those diverse types follow our rules and receive the experience exactly the way we do. We want to see them in our midst and still have had the exact same experience we would have had if they’d not been there.
At ArtsEmerson we spend a lot of our creative energy thinking up ways to build bridges between the people who know and the people who don’t. We have created things like Play Reading Book Clubs to foster theater literacy among people who don’t regularly attend. We’ve run extensive research programs for understanding different barriers to entry for non-participating segments of our population and then worked to remove those barriers. We’ve turned over the venues for parts of the year to community-based programmers not on our staff who have their own networks of audience so that people we’ve never met have the experience of crossing these thresholds. And, though we’ve been at this in earnest now for the better part of three years, it’s still too early to tell if we’re moving the dial in any significant way on the composition of our core audience, let alone on the larger goal of fostering this city-wide transformation of identity. But it is important work. So we keep at it.
And as we do, we have very uncomfortable moments that would be in the category of “teachable moments”. One such moment early on: at a low-priced “community night’ which attracted a lot of “new to the theater” attendees for one of our performances a young woman of color was texting in the middle of Act One. A middle-aged white man seated behind her put his hand on her shoulder and told her to turn off her phone. The middle-aged man of color accompanying the woman confronted the white man and told her to remove his hands from his guest. The white patron called for an usher, who called for her boss, who came with the security detail and asked the man of color to step out. So many things happened in this short exchange. One patron felt she had the right to text. One patron felt he had the right to stop her. One patron felt that man had no right to put his hands on his guest. And, the officials in this case immediately decided that the one who knew the cell phone etiquette was the one in the right. The young woman and her companion were removed and reseated after being told the rules. This was not the appropriate response, in my view, and it became part of the debrief that night. I use race indicators because they, unfortunately, factor in here. No sense trying to do this work at all if you’re not going to be able to tell the truth. We go, we grow, we live, we learn. We are a much better host now than we were when this occurred and, in many ways, because we all went through it– including all the patrons in this story. They are all still part of our audience.
All this to say, this is delicate, slow-moving work with many setbacks and pitfalls along the way. I love what I’m reading from Lynne about opportunities for meaning-making that exist outside the curated space. We’ve spent a lot of time creating spaces for these discussions that we staff. But I think it may be a next step to create spaces that some of our community partners host, so that the conversation isn’t moving between ArtsEmerson and the audience, but among the community of people who came. That’s striking me as a productive avenue of investigation.
I hear Scott on the question of the churchification of theater– though churches have been going through the same changes in terms of the norms as performance venues. It’s the preciousness I think he’s talking about, and I enter this question of preciousness from the perspective of “precious for whom”? At a recent performance of some very adult material at ArtsEmerson two high school groups attended. They were the dominant audience in a small theater. And their experience of it was visceral. They hollered their approval. They talked back to the characters like it was a gym class. They laughed behind their hands at things their teacher wouldn’t ever say in front of them. I watched the teachers through the whole thing, afraid they were going to clench and make an issue of it. Shame the students for the way they received the work. I watched the actors but it only took them a moment to feel the room and know they were on a different ride today. And they strapped in and stepped on the gas. The teachers didn’t flinch, the actors didn’t flinch, and the students made meaning in the moment in the way they do. It was an electric ride through that show. What was most promising for me was that the regular theatergoers in the room also took that same ride. We’ve done the work. Our audiences are learning to have their expectations upended and to go with what comes when they enter our place. Granted, this particular show was strong stuff, so it was not everyone in our regular audience who wanted this ride– under any conditions. But having signed up for it, and sensing that today’s rules of engagement were going to be set by someone other than them. they went with it.
So, I don’t really have a strong opinion about whether the audience will experience work more deeply if they find a more passive way of receiving it. Nor do I know that it protects the artists to set the rules firmly and enforce them aggressively during the performance. (In fact, I’ve got anecdotal evidence from the work we’ve done so far that an audience that’s overly concerned about the rules is less available to the performance and performers than one that hasn’t been “oriented” to them.) But I do know that we have to be very careful to make certain that as we explore this we are aware of the deep bias that stalks this conversation everywhere it breaks out. Leonard is correct that the artists and the administrators have as much to learn here as the audience. If we approach question as one that requires each to lean in, we just might make some progress on all three fronts.
One final story about what happens when you have a diverse audience that’s comfortable with different ways of receiving the experience. Cicely Tyson was on our stage last year in The Trip To Bountiful. There’s a moment in the show when she starts to sing a well-known hymn to herself and her young traveling companion. On the nights when the audience was primarily following the rules of the white cultural event, she sang it low and directly into the face of her scene partner,Journee Smollett Bell and said, softly to her, the line which followed: “I’m a very happy woman, young lady.” But on the nights where the audience was following the rules of the black church and sang along with her to that spiritual, she would turn to the audience, sing it full out, throw her arms wide open and pronounce to the whole crowd “I’m a very happy woman, young lady!” Not one person who saw that show on a night that happened would have wanted it to have gone any other way.
John Sobol says
This is a fascinating topic, but I would argue that our discussion of it here is limited by our focus on the changing ways that audiences are making meaning in the arts, for those changes are really just reflections of broader changes to ways that individuals and organizations are creating meaning across all our social systems. Audiences are making meaning in new ways in the arts just as we are making meaning in new ways in the realms of education, business, government, medicine and elsewhere, and in each case the cause is the same: a radical restructuring of social value systems based on the disruptive introduction of a hyper-efficient communications technology.
The emergent digital values that are reflected in all of these areas of human activity reflect the technological ascendance of networked dialogue, and thus celebrate interactivity, iteration, improvisation and an overall prioritizing of collective experience over individual artifact. Needless to say, such digital values run directly counter to those they are displacing – literate values such as fixity, hierarchy, linearity and individualistic communion with a revered artifact (books above all, and secondarily all art that strives to be treated like a book, experienced in silence, stillness and solitude. And yes that includes theatre, but also visual arts, poetry, etc.) Art has been increasingly treated as an artifact since the dawn of literacy, as opposed to the immersive, subjective, ritualized, transient and utilitarian nature of pre-literate (oral) creativity. And so from that perspective, the transition to the passive and silent audience in the 19th century is nothing more than the entirely predictable extension of literate values into theatrical spaces, just as those monological dynamics were imposed on formerly dialogical commercial, educational, religious and other social spaces. (It’s important to recognize how culturally specific most of this discussion has been, and how many profoundly different and far more participatory art forms have – and in some cased still do – thrived in marginalized niches far from the epicentres of literate culture.)
Today, as a result of the hyper-efficiency of our new networked tools, literate values are being displaced in turn, with predictably outraged responses from those of us whose value system is rooted in literacy. And frustrating as this can be for those of us raised within the great literate artistic traditions (as I know I was) I believe the only way to successfully port those great traditions into the networked future is by recognizing that significant change is inevitable, and that very substantial accommodations must be made, and made now, in order to prevent being swept out by the generational tide. But by the same token I deeply believe that the younger generation needs what the past has to offer, and that building meaningful bridges from both sides is the best way forward. But the onus is on the elders to make the initial efforts, because kids don’t know what they don’t know, and there is too much at stake for anything but our best and humblest efforts. Incremental changes to programming or behavioral standards are not good enough in my opinion. Far more ambitious transformations are required to gain the trust and loyalty of networked generations.
If you happen to find this analysis relevant, please feel free to read more in my book You Are Your Media – Making Sense of the 21st Century, (available from lulu.com) or on my blog. Thanks for the excellent discussion!
Scott Walters says
John — I think this is a brilliant addition to the conversation, and I will keep an eye out for your book!
Richard Kooyman says
I agree with Mr. Sobel that there is “a radical restructuring of social value systems” happening but I contend that the restructuring is being driven from the top down and not as some pent up populist demand to create a new meaning meaning.
Robert McChesney wrote in his book “The Problem of the Media” that the ” Policies,structures, subsidies, and institutions that are created to control, direct, and regulate the media will be responsible for the logic and nature of the media system.” Young people are not creating a new social media and a new meaning to go along with it . They are being told how they will participate in the social media platforms that new media corporations are creating.
Zane Trow says
I’m a bit late in to. I haven’t posted here for a while so nice to be back and as usual, a stimulating read.
Since 2004 I have, in every one of my own live art and performance undertakings, asked (formally announced) that both performers and audiences leave their mobile phones on, and that they should feel free to answer if they so wish.
When one rings we wait, it is only polite, until the call is completed.
This policy simply does two things:
1) Allows the (outside) world to exist…..
2) Stops everyone worrying about what to do if one rings….
It has produced remarkable outcomes, one of many might be the time that a performers boyfriend rang to let her know his football team was winning at the game he was attending. We then decided to pump the phone thru a microphone and listened to the sound of the game for a bit. Then we got on with the show.
Nobody has ever complained about this policy, many have thanked us for it.
More recently we have done a number of shows with a small live screen to one side of the space or a large screen behind the stage. We have published a live texting number so that audiences can directly share texts and images about and of the show, as it happens, in real time. This process is moderated of course, but it’s not difficult and again, everyone who has engaged with it has enjoyed it.
I believe as audiences change the actual form of the work needs to change.
It’s only one way to deal of course, it may not be appropriate for everything or everyone, but it has helped tremendously.