John Lahr is not a dumbass.

06.22.11 | 5 Comments

CATEGORIES audiences, collaboration, conversation starter, development, devised work, ideas, new plays, playwrights, rabble rousing, social media, the process, Uncategorized

John Lahr, New Yorker theater critic, wrote a piece on Julie Taymor’s frustration with the process of creating a new theatrical work in the era of instant feedback, Twitter, and focus groups. It’s a great piece, full of historical perspective on the role of audience (that is to say, amateur) criticisms of theater. He rubbed me the wrong way, however, when he generalized his annoyance with those who tweet their opinions. He asserts Twitter users are “crickets, not critics,” spewing a “cultural gas of opinion and vitriol.” And, per Lahr, “the Tweetosphere [sic] has no interest in ambiguity, irony, or careful distinction.” So, I proved him right and vented my spleen in this tweet.

Yes, I'm an adolescent sometimes. The #2amt red meat fans dig that shit.

A few people must’ve enjoyed this, because they retweeted it, in the process boosting my Klout score 1 point. And I know why. Snark sells. Especially on Twitter. Or in Lahr’s words, “the glibbest and loudest rule.” This may be why Twitter was the perfect medium for Dan Sinker‘s brilliant, satirical @MayorEmanuel saga. With 140 character limits, Twitter encourages the sort of reductionist, over-confident, unambiguous sound-bite phraseology that I so lament in “serious” public discourse.

I suppose, therefore, Lahr has a point in his critique. But he makes the mistake of conflating the limitations of the medium with the limitations of the users. That’s like blaming Peter Parker for not being able to execute aerial acrobatics without visible guide wires in the theater like he does in the movies. As David Loehr and Brandon Moore said, many who tweet are also long form bloggers, informed content matter experts, well versed in subtlety and irony and all that nonsense.

That doesn’t automatically make us Lahr’s scholarly nor critical peers. I’ll be the first to admit nobody would ever give me a theater critic job at The New Yorker. But we also know that there are far fewer such jobs then there are gifted critics. Many are simply toiling away on blogs and on Twitter, because that’s the outlet available to them, and are frankly not deserving of Lahr’s ignorant judgment.

But I’m not really writing this in defense of amateur critics. The good ones can write better than me and defend themselves. I’m writing this because Lahr’s vision of theater as essentially a one-way communication form (with an indulged peanut gallery giving feedback only through gasps, laughter, jeers or applause) may still be dominant, but is by no means unchallenged.

Devised work is showing that you can, in fact, create art by committee. Though, theater artists have been collaboratively creating art for so long that we shouldn’t be surprised. Lahr writes, “the essence of great theatre is an expression of the individual voice of the makers,” but he doesn’t acknowledge the oxymoron in his own sentence. What, exactly, is the individual voice of a (plural) group of makers? Scripting and otherwise building a show through ensemble improv is certainly nothing new. Conference panel discussions, which are sort of a less entertaining form of theater, can be shifted and enriched mid-course by a gutsy provocateur. If art can be created by committee, how can we so glibly rule out focus groups? I’m serious.

Why not include and build on the audience’ input, either in development of a piece or during a performance? And I’m not just talking about the mad-lib type suggestions that you might throw out at a Second City review. I’m talking about making the art more relevant to the audience by including them in the creative process. Directly, transparently, without defensiveness or arrogant posturing about the false superiority of the story-teller over the story-tellee.

What could be more hyper-local and intensely relevant to new audiences? What could engender deeper communication and relationship between artist and community? In what better way could theater artists learn more about diverse audiences that we so desperately claim to want to serve? How else can we better hold up a mirror to society?

I’m bone-tired of theater artists and institutions that seem to think they have a monopoly on illuminating the human condition. When we treat theater as one-way communication, why are we surprised when the stories we’re telling don’t lead to a flood of new audience members banging down our doors? Instead of thinking of ourselves as uniquely qualified to tell stories, let’s realize that our unique qualifications are really just to tell stories in a certain WAY, with actors and a live audience. Everybody has stories they want to tell, including (and maybe especially) our potential but untapped audiences. Let’s use our skills to first learn and then share their stories, using our artistic forms. Let’s include them in the process, all but guaranteeing that they will become our collaborator-audience. In the process, we will broaden our own understanding of the humanity around us, which might even make us better artists.


NOTE: There are a few Chicago groups I know who are already doing this, in very different ways. I’d bet there are groups doing this all over the country, though they’re probably not on John Lahr’s radar. And even though these examples are in Chicago, I’ve a feeling even Scott Walters would approve. Further, I’d bet these models are sustainable in ways that some of our traditional theater companies can only dream of.

Barrel of Monkeys produces the hilarious and ever-changing That’s Weird, Grandma! from the texts that come from from writing workshops they run in Chicago Public Schools.

Albany Park Theater Project is an excellent multi-ethnic youth theater ensemble that builds their scripts from the life experiences of residents of Chicago’s diverse Albany Park neighborhood. The actors write and perform stories from their communities, while developing their talents as artists and performers.

Among other initiatives, Storycatchers sends theater and musical artists into a juvenile women’s correctional facility to help the young women perform their stories through scene work, poems, and song.

Companies like these give me great hope for the future of theater in an increasingly multicultural, networked society.

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Aaron Andersen

I'm the Sr. Budget Analyst at Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and serve on the Board of BackStage Theatre Company in Chicago as Chair. I got an MBA at the University of Chicago a couple years ago, and I spend an awful lot of time thinking about and working to enhance finance, marketing, and organizational strategy in the performing arts.

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  • Anonymous

    I agree with your sentiment that too often theatre does not incorporate the experience of the audience–or shift or change the work based on the audience’s experience.  I myself am much more committed to creating room in my production budget for previews, having realized too late in life how necessary audience reaction is to fine-tuning a production. 

    However, I do think Lahr has a point about theatre makers knowing which voices to listen to.  I recently directed a production that many loved, but that some did not.  The show ended up selling very well, but had I investigated too closely the opinions of the audience members who did not enjoy the show, I might have been steered the production wrongly.  Audacious theatre is sometimes going to be alienating to certain critics and reviewers–professional and amateur alike.

    I do think an artist, or group of artists, needs to have a sense of which audience members they’d like to please, and to whom to listen.  Some folks love really talky, well-made plays–I am not trying to please them, I am not interested in creating the kind of work they’ll like.  But I do care about folks who like the kind of work I like, and about engaging them int the work my company does, and making sure it is meaningful to them.

    I’m not sure I get the conflating of devised work with work which is measured by “focus groups.”  Perhaps you mean that devised work is “focus grouped” in the making of it, because it is distilled through an initial community. albeit of the makers themselves?  I’m interested in you unpacking that more.

    The success of companies like Barrel of Monkeys and Albany Park is notable–attention should be paid–as the material comes initially from the larger community, or “audience,” itself.  These companies are also led by very, very fine artists (disclosure:  some are friends), whom I imagine also have an internal sense of what works and what does not, one which is not necessarily gleaned from the audience.

    • Sure, I’ll unpack. I didn’t mean that a devised work should be “focus grouped” per se.

      I cited devised work as an example that has further deconstructed the myth that art must be the product of an individual perspective. Since theater is collaborative, we should already know that’s a myth, but devised work demonstrates that not even the words on the page have to be the product of an individual perspective.

      What I’m saying about focus groups merely takes this to the next step. Instead of devising work with a group of improvisers or whoever, go ahead and bring in a story from your audience. And check in with them as you go (this is what I mean by focus groups) to make sure you’re not losing the integrity of the story they’re giving you. If you’re getting the source material from your audience, you will (or should) already be targeted on making sure you get the story right for them, and you won’t be that worried about trying to please people who are nowhere near your target audience.

      And yes, absolutely, the quality of the artists crafting theatrical structure onto the audience’s story is immensely important. I am not saying that the playwright’s and director’s skills don’t matter. I’m saying I’d like to see those skills applied to stories that come from the community that you wish to see in your audience. There will definitely be a balancing act, because at some times you will probably have to reject suggestions from the collaborator-audience, and at times you will have to accept their suggestions and reject your own preferences. The balancing act will be tricky, and will require serious artistic skill.

  • You’re right, Aaron, I DO approve of these examples (BTW, I have nothing AGAINST Nylachi, just the de facto monopoly). And you are exactly right. Artists want to hear THEIR voices, THEIR stories. They want to be special. It is the cold leftovers of the Romantic Era. I like John Lahr’s writing, and Robert Brustein’s, and Michael Feingold’s, and especially Johnathan Kalb’s — but I don’t agree with their “high art” aesthetics. 

  • And thanks for the tip about Klout, which I hadn’t heard about somehow!

  • Yeah, this is pretty much the best thing we’ve had on 2am Theatre in a long while. And given how smart everyone here is, that’s saying something.

    I agree with every sentiment you shared, in any event, so in lieu of commentary or criticism, I’ll simply say: more, please.