Open up and let them in, continued…

openI am an artist in process. We are an industry in process. I am of the opinion that our particular industry is in its entirety process, and nothing more. And I think I’m starting to get an inkling of what that word means.

My process thus far has gone something like this: discovered theatre at 20, fell in love with theatre, ran away from theatre, theatre hunted me down and forced itself on me, discovered that I was, and always had been, a theatre artist, clumsily mounted a string of theatrical events and, most recently, disappeared into the stunted, confused and beaten-down hound that is the business side of the independent arts. That last one has encompassed the last 3 years of my life, and I have lived it; eaten, breathed, touched, tasted it every single day. This has made me joyful, and it has made me furious, it has made me want to bury theatre in a shallow grave in the backyard and never give it another thought.

It has turned me into a preacher, the guy at the cocktail party that just won’t shut up, and it’s utterly taken my tongue and hidden it from me.

This, I realize now, is the process that all pioneers have gone through. I have sought out and wrapped myself in the voices of independent theatre practitioners and audiences – like a junkie with a farmers market of narcotics at his disposal – both in person and out here on the blogosphere. It’s moved from the background of my personality to the foreground, it has become an essential part of my identity. And the pursuit of answers, of method and of financial viability has – like all good art – cost me, as I know it has cost so many of my peers: time, money, sleep, relationship stress, sanity…and that light at the end of the tunnel is still just a pin prick.

But. Taking a breather right now I realize there are some things that I have come to know as Truth. Ideas that became experiments that became facts, forged in the fire of doing the thing and solidified in the forensics. These are chunks of bedrock that I believe we need to be open and loud about, that we need to share with each other so that we can strengthen our bonds as an industry, and as a community.

The Open Up and Let Them In concept – propounded in a post from early June – is one of those big chunks. Simply stated, it’s a shift in the indie theatrical model from putting up little basement-theatre versions of what the big proscenium-arched houses present – with little card table box offices and little Fisher Price mini-bars and redundant ushers – and instead embracing the opportunities presented us by our size and form – namely accessibility to the artists so that we can celebrate and debate the work together. Doing away with the curtain, as it were, instead of merely lifting it at 8:00. Fearing not the judgment of the punters but rather welcoming them as one half of the equation that makes up the performance. Face to face. Creating an experience that is unique unto itself, as similar to civic theatre as it is to Opera or a hockey game.

This idea has traction. Ottawa theatreist Kris Joseph recently writes:

…I am now more convinced than ever that theatre can and must distinguish itself from film, TV, and new media by being completely porous to its audience.

We owe it to audiences to share what we have learned through our practice; this is not an ‘education’ function but a core function.  We owe it to audiences to provide them with art that they want to see and that is relevant to them; this is not a ’subscription renewal’ or ‘programming’ function, but a core function.

See, inside the heart of all the discussion about why theatre is dying lies a rhythmic beat of “it’s not relevant.  It’s not relevant. It’s not relevant.”  We can all hear it, but the response to the drum-beat is generally wrong-headed because it revolves around a revival through increased ticket sales.  No: we need to revolve it around the body that owns the hand that’s banging the drum.

If this integration of art and audience can be achieved, the life-blood of the theatrical form and, yes, even the ‘funding’, will follow.

We can do this. Easily. It’s already so close to what we do already that to avoid it seems quite silly, actually. The magic of small-house theatre is in its connectivity, not its separation. Allow the audiences the ownership they crave and you will never get rid of them.

New Leaf Theatre in Chicago is inviting audiences into some rehearsals. Cambiare Productions in Austin live-streamed their last show to the world for free. Here in Vancouver, Twenty-Something Theatre Artistic Producer Sabrina Evertt blogs about her process openly and fearlessly. Touchstone Theatre is inviting us into the process of their next production, Demon Voice, by posting behind-the-scenes video blogs hosted by multi-Jessie Award winning playwright Shawn Macdonald. Here’s the first two in the series…

Short. Sweet. Inclusive. Generous. Open. We must share to butterfly. But not all of it.  Just enough to let them take ownership of us, not so much that we deprive them of the surprises that they come for.

How much are our audiences going to care about us? Pretty much exactly as much as we show we care about them.

12 thoughts on “Open up and let them in, continued…

  1. Word.

    I’ve been saying this for a long time, and what I’ve found is audiences love it. I haven’t gotten a single piece of negative feedback from audience members. The slow speed for us has been allowing time for artists to be more comfortable with it. They pretty much have to unlearn everything they’ve been taught.

    We always have the house open, audiences can see the actors warm up, do fight call, you know be people before and after the shows. We tossed the “curtain” (in quotes cause we didn’t have an actual expensive piece of fabric hanging) a while ago and haven’t looked back.

  2. I think this is your best post to date Si. I, as you know, am in cahoots with you on this revolution. I believe that what we may be moving toward is a very old idea and not a new one. Whichever it is, the end game is so important as to be the only thing that matters. If we do not change and evolve then we will die off. And that is as it should be.

  3. Right on, Steve.

    Tony – that’s awesome. There’s been a certain amount of push back from some theatre artists here enamored with the ol’ ‘hallowed space’ and ‘theatre magic’ or whatnot of the experience, as if applying that to the indie level somehow elevates it to the lofty status of the Royal Grande Whatever.

    Let it be what it is…a party that everyone is invited to, I say.

  4. What a great piece. I couldn’t agree with you more. We really need to demystify the theatre-making process, especially for the indie theatre audience. Especially with the apparent indifference to the Arts and the ‘we don’t get art’ agenda that our governments are using to justify a lack of support–people feel special when they are let in on a process that seems on some level to be reserved for artsy types. People will change their attitudes toward theatre when they become active particpants and stakeholders in the theatre-making process. The fact is the audience is the END of theatre, the reason for it, and without them we’re just workshopping.

    Oh, and thanks for posting my wee blogs!

  5. Oh, I’ve gotten the push back too.

    I think the hallowed space is not because of the building, it’s because of what happens there. But if you believe the magic of theatre is in the exchange of energy between actor and audience (also thrown out there a lot) I don’t see how that exchange being blocked at every turn is a good thing.

    I think as a field, theatre is terrified of change. And seeing the wizard behind the curtain is a major change from the status quo.

    But I think long term inviting people in is far better than begging them to come.

  6. I love this stuff!
    I even bought a camera last year with full intentions of doing this sort of thing, but when we were working on a team of 2, writing, directing, designing and building everything on a shoestring, adding the extra layer seemed so daunting, and the idea kinda fell to the wayside.
    Which is just plain silly. This is so simple, straight, and to the point. No need for fancy editing or equipment. Just do it, Nanette.

    I feel that if making videos was a threat to the ol’ ‘hallowed space’ and ‘theatre magic’ we would have gone the way of the do-do when the talkies first appeared. The sanctity of hallowed spaces come in the community that gathers there. What’s the use of shutting the doors to the congregation?

  7. Hi there,

    Glad to read this post and wanted to share something that my company, Stolen Chair, is doing in NYC. We’ve been given a sizable grant from a program called Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists (from The Field) to adapt the business model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to the theatre (our CST). A small community of members will be following the development of our newest original work, QUANTUM POETICS, from its earliest zygotic stages until its first public presentation. Along the way, we’ll be curating a variety of thematically related cultural and educational activities to bring the audience even further into the world of the play. The community will also have its own private online social network, with exclusive rehearsal footage streamed right from the studio, podcasts, excerpts from the developing script, and, most importantly, a feedback forum where we can dialogue about the work-in-progress even when we can’t do so in person!

    The reasons behind the initiative speak to a lot of what you say above about creating a community of informed, invested stakeholders. We’ve just opened up signups over at http://communitysupportedtheatre.org (where the whole concept is explained in detail). NYtheatre.com will be “embedding” a writer in the CST for the next 9 months and she’ll be chronicling the progress of the show and the community we’re trying to build.

    Here’s to more models!

    Jon Stancato
    Co-Artistic Director
    The Stolen Chair Theatre Company

  8. Pingback: Switching baskets: growing a sustainable funding model? « The Next Stage

  9. Yes, Simon. Yes, yes, yes. Thanks for writing posts like this that are fueling this sea change. Sea changes are, by definition I think, big and scary – but we are all fortunate to be living in a time when a big one is approaching and we get to be part of how it’s defined. And fortunate to be able to collaborate with lovely minds like yours. What a terrific and truly awesome responsibility and opportunity.

  10. Wow. I feel like you’re talking about me up there. I feel though that it’s not just the audience we have to let in, but the rest of your cast and crew. They have been so ingrained into the “privacy” of it all. I tried to get rehearsal footage to put up from one of my company’s shows and got turned down by one of the actresses in it because she didn’t feel she looked “good enough”. Since I didn’t have her permission, I had to scrap the whole thing.

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