Thesis: Holding the idea that artists are different in kind from non-artists may create a barrier that discourages non-artists from attending or engaging with your work. Choosing to believe that audience members have a key role in theatrical production may reduce or remove such a barrier.
I invoke the term artistic exceptionalism to refer to the idea that artists are different in kind from ordinary people like me. It has many facets and has been viewed differently over time. Artists may be visited by a divine muse. They may be gifted or afflicted with unusual brain architecture. They may have had life experiences that shaped them differently from the rest of us.
Whatever the ascribed origin of the artistic spark, it usually carries the trappings of high aesthetic sensibility, apparently inspired creativity, a passionate and often unstable emotional life, powerful but brittle ego, and a willingness to dwell in sub-standard housing subsisting largely on ramen noodles and cheese from buffets at institutional events.
As a mental construct, artistic exceptionalism has some utility to the creation of art. Many donors, at least from the renaissance to the present day, have lapped it up with a spoon, disgorging ducats the while. It tends to keep most non-artists out of the artists’ way during the creative process. It magnifies the glamour of the artist, conveying a range of social benefits. It can serve as an attitude salve to artists while working tedious temp jobs.
However, artistic exceptionalism also creates a hedge that makes a lot of prospective audience members keep their distance. They feel pre-rejected, on the basis of their non-artistic status, by artists and works of art. Rather than show up and collect the anticipated rejection, they decide that whole categories of art just aren’t for them. They don’t show up, and until someone makes them feel more welcome; they won’t show up.
Many art forms can thrive in the contemporary world without a large audience, but performing arts and especially theatre rely on what I increasingly think of not as butts-in-seats but memories-above-seats. What I’ve realized over the last few years is that the true medium of performed art is the memories of the audience members. The component parts of a production leave a variety of enduring pieces of art – set pieces, props, costumes, design drawings, scripts – but the only place the production in performance endures is in audience memory.
Looked at from this perspective, performing is analogous to brush strokes or hammer blows in painting or sculpture. A theatre company needs audience for the same reason a painter needs a surface on which to paint – the audience is where you put the art when you’re done with it. We, the audience, carry your work away and do our best to cherish it and share it with others; to make the effects of the production ripple out beyond the few hundred or few thousand who saw it live.
At least we do that when we understand that we have a job; that remembering and retelling are duties of that job. We do that when we understand that we are part of rather than consumers of the art creation and preservation process.
Witnessing, retaining, and relating an artistic performance benefits from a quantity of artistry. Where will you direct your attention at each moment? That requires some of the eye of a film editor. What will you say to people to convey what you saw? That requires some of the articulation of a playwright. How will you convince your second order audience of what you’re saying? That requires a smidgeon of an actor’s performance flair.
I do not accuse anyone reading this of elitism against non-artists; but like many other stereotypes that roam around the culture, it isn’t enough to reject it yourself to reduce its impact. It requires active engagement with the members of your audience to invite us in as, in a small way, fellow artists collaborating with you in the creation, retention, and dissemination of your art.
Finding ways to convey that serving as audience to a play is a fun, active, and important endeavor is critical to attracting more people to embrace it, take it with the right blend of frivolity and seriousness, do it more often, and encourage others to play along.
I’ll close with one concrete idea, just to give you something you can improve upon. It’s an idea for a curtain speech element:
“I looked through our program and counted [number] names. That includes all the artists, technicians, and funders who made this performance actual. I appreciate and thank all of them. However, it leaves out what I hope will be [your ideal total audience for the run of the show] names – all of you plus the people who sat and will sit in your seats for other performances. A theatre audience has a role to play. Once this show closes, your memories are the sole repository of our work. Thank you all for accepting what we are here to offer. Please keep it and share it with friends. Please visit us again for another production. Enjoy the show.”
Self ordained chaplain of the American theatre.