Thursday, June 25, 2009

Who are we doing this for?

There are a number of different reasons why a theatre chooses to host a talk back: education, outreach, audience development, and accessibility to the artists factor as many of the common reasons. Yet one of the most commonly asked questions is "how do you remember all of your lines."

It is frustrating for artists who has worked for weeks and weeks investing her or herself in telling a story, performing it, and having the audience's first response to marvel at their ability to memorize and recite text. It would be like attending the Superbowl and afterwards asking the star quarterback how he learned to run so fast. It is disheartening and makes the actors frustrated with doing talk backs. I think any actor would rather have a discussion on why the audience thought the production was sub par than be asked how they learned their lines.

The fact that despite theatre company's efforts to increase audience access and participation that the number one question continues to be how the actors learn their lines should point to a problem. People don't understand theatre. They don't understand its function. They don't understand why it's important. They don't understand what they are supposed to take from a performance or sometimes even how to watch a performance. This is why we are loosing the battle with film, television, and the internet. This is why people are staying away.

We as theatre artists need to raise the bar for our audience. They know that they are to attend at a certain time, sit quietly in their seats and pay attention, clap at the act break, give a standing ovation at the end despite what they thought of the production, and then exit silently. But teaching them how to invest themselves in a performance and find meaning is something that is overlooked.

This education has to being early in one's life. If you ask someone who enjoys theatre why they started to go, they will usually answer that someone made an impact on them at a young age. Whether it was their parents, a family member, or a family friend taking them to the theatre, it is usually an outside influence. No one is naturally inclined to visit the theatre. And those who took them didn't just bring them there, but asked them questions afterwords and engaged them to analyse the experience they had just had.

How do we as theatre artists help in this process? The easiest way is to bring our friends and our friends children to plays and talk to them about it afterwards. People always want access to the artist; well we are the artists and can give them that insight. Rather than just having them attend your show and going out afterwards for a drink and their compliments, ask them about the show. Ask them what they thought of the set design. Ask them if the climatic moment in the third act made sense. Ask them if a shift in a character's emotions went along with the other choices the actor was playing. You will find that not only do most people pick up on these things, but they'll have well formed opinions - they just don't know that they should be thinking about that and discuss it as well.

Institutionally we should continue to engage our audiences as theatres. Provide questions in the program; guideposts for them to pay attention to as they follow the arc of the story. Host the post show discussion, but frame them with some background. Tell them why this particular piece was chosen and some of the things a director wanted to highlight. Focus the discussion so the audience can discuss whether or not you got your point across. If you don't provide any context, that's when the question about actors remembering lines comes up.

The theatre cannot afford to loose audience members. We keep asking for government money to grow our programs and for arts education in schools. We make the statement that the arts are relevant. But have to show that they are relevant by engaging our audiences. It's not enough to simply show someone a piece of art and expect them to understand it. Many will but many won't. We as artists have to make the extra efforts to ensure that our audiences are not only understanding the importance of what we do, but continue to engage with us. There is little need for theatre if there is no audience - let's make sure we have one for our future.

Happy Birthday: George Abbott (1887-1995)

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