Richard Evans of EMCArts interviews Charles Fee of Great Lakes Theater Company and David Shimotakahara, Artistic Director of GroundWorks DanceTheater about their thoughts and practices related to audience engagement.
I was particularly interested in listening to the interview because after writing about Great Lakes’ practice of opening the theatre early, staying open late and having a bar in the seating area, I wanted to learn a little more.
I didn’t find out if anyone complains about noise coming from the bar area during the show, but I did learn that they conduct their fight and dance calls in full view of the audience during that 90 minute period before the show. (which often confuses audiences who feel they are intruding upon something) After the show, they don’t have a formal talk back but rather have the actors go out for a glass of wine and chat with whomever might be interested.
At one point in the interview, Fee mentions they don’t have a post-show talk back because he feels it is unfair to turn to the audience immediately after the show and ask them what they think. I can personally empathize with this sentiment because it often takes me quite some time to process what my feelings about a performance are.
GroundWorks DanceTheater offers a similar pre-show experience of necessity because they are often in non-traditional spaces where there isn’t a curtain to mask their activity or a separate studio to warm up in. Preparations are often done in full view of the arriving audience.
I was particularly interested in the comments made about audience participation in events. Fee mentions he has no problem with including those experiences in the show, but that the nature of the show changes to that of a circus. “It is no longer an aesthetic experience because the aesthetic distance has been shattered.”
There is discussion about conflicting feelings about audience participation. Fee mentions that when performers are audience members, they cringe when there is audience participation because they feel threatened by it, but acknowledges one of the things every performer talks about striving for is breaking down the 4th wall.
Fee mentions that in the continuum of participation, the fact a laugh landed and everyone held their breath as one, are valid measures of audience participation and engagement.
When he said that, I wondered if that is enough. There is frequent discussion about how passively sitting in a theatre is no longer viewed as interesting and that in the old days, audiences used to be far more vocal in their reactions until they were stifled by societal expectations.
I occurred to me that as people with training in the arts, we know about the history. But do our audiences in general know? Do they yearn to shout praise or insults and stay away because they can’t? Is the ability to do so something people would value so much they would start attending if they could?
As I was thinking perhaps we were projecting our assumptions on our audiences, Fee mentioned that he actually didn’t think young people really craved audience participation but rather it is the baby boomers. He said in his experience working regularly with young people, “the environment [of group participation] for them is fraught with danger, social danger…”
I wanted to hear more about what he was basing this theory that it was the baby boomers that were interested in participation, but the interview moved on. I was left wondering if it might be a case of older people projecting their desires on younger audiences, perhaps wishfully thinking about how they would love to get up there if only they were a little younger.
Indeed, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. When the flesh was a little stronger years ago, the confidence was lacking.
Shimotakahara opines that young audience are eager to create and want access to ways to create themselves, they may just not be interested in creating with you. Still, they may crave training and guidance to help them express their personal visions in a way that is participatory for them.
So some interesting views on the subject I hadn’t considered before. It’s only about 24 minutes so it is easy to give a listen as you wash the dishes or clean your rooms. (Which is exactly what I was doing when I decided to write about the podcast.)