Audience Engagement In Theatre Creation

I’ve been sitting on the following articles for a few weeks now.

Natalie V. Hall’s #2TweetorNot2Tweet

Gwydion Suilebhan’s Theatrical Biodiversity

Alex Barron on HowlRound’s  Blog – 13P: Easy to Revere, Tough to Recreate

And also some good news for Seattle: building 12th Avenue Arts is well underway, and Capitol Hill’s Pike & Pine St corridor is, apparently, one of the best places for the arts in the country.

The last two I find interesting because, of course, I live and work in Seattle. The first three, though, create an interesting picture of theatre in my head.

Theatre artists want to work. They want to create systems in which they can work, and have a modicum of success. 13P, a playwrights’ collective, allowed playwrights to get their work produced and seen. It’s hard to reproduce because, well, the model worked at the time for a select group. This is not to say a similar organization would not work – Seattle Playwrights’ Collective gets plays produced and staged on a regular basis – but it is to say that many artists get a little starry-eyed about 13P and want to do the same thing. This ends up hindering their work because they aren’t tailoring the business to the circumstance.

Gwydion Suilebhan says that local theatre needs to focus on local issues. For the most part, I agree. However, I find his theory of theatrical biodiversity to have the same inherent problems as the local food movement, which he recommends and admires. For one thing, without the spread of agriculture across the globe, Washington State would not be home to some of the best apples I’ve ever had. In fact, the apple tree never would have spread across the world – it originated in Western Asia. If we limit ourselves to eating only what grows locally, we ignore thousands of years of history and evolution of our food. Yes, transporting asparagus from Argentina to New York State costs a lot of money and is detrimental, and I agree we should grow as much food as possible locally in order to transport it shorter distances. However, lots of food grows well in the variety of climates found in Washington State that is not native. I feel the same way about theatre. Yes, we should aim to support local playwrights, producers, actors, directors, etc, but I do not find that it is imperative that we stick to local subjects. We live in a culture defined by constant contact with the outside world through the internet, so we are constantly being influenced by artists across the globe.

And then there’s the (short) debate over whether to tweet during a show or not. Personally, I say no. Tweet during intermission, before the show, and after. Twitter can wait a couple of hours for your teardown of a play. That said, people are really into Twitter, so I WOULD say that theatres should consider how they use Twitter. Sure, great free advertising from audiences. But! It could also be a great way of engaging audiences.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Going to see a play requires that you are outside of your house, experiencing something at a specific point in space-time (you have to go to the theatre, at a specific time of day). Using Twitter (and FourSquare, and Facebook) to engage your audience isn’t just limited to that play, though. I would, personally, like to see a theatre festival that goes in a couple of steps. 1) set up a series of staged readings. Have the audience vote on (and comment about) their favorites through whatever social media they prefer. 2) the most popular play or plays get full productions later in the year. This could probably inspire some audience loyalty, because your audience is being encouraged, listened to, and catered to. This also helps produce more new, local work (unless the festival goes global, like Edinburgh Fringe, something we can all aspire to). It keeps playwrights, actors, directors, dramaturgs, producers, choreographers, stage managers, designers, and theatre administrators constantly, actively engaged with their audience. Rather than just putting a series of promotions and notifications up on Twitter and Facebook, it is a way to grow an audience and keep them interested – because it really is about the audience, rather than being, again, about a company promoting their stuff to you.

I’d like to see it. I might try to arrange it. I kind of dig the idea. However, it would take up essentially a whole season.

5 thoughts on “Audience Engagement In Theatre Creation

  1. First of all, I’m a him, not a her. :)

    Second: nowhere do I argue, I want to be clear, that ALL culture should be sourced locally. I just think we don’t do enough of it. I agree fully that we also want culture to spread. If we don’t, we end up with not enough cultural/genetic diversity in our “crops.” The metaphor may have been extended too far here, but I think you get where I’m coming from…

  2. Ack! I apologize, and I’ve fixed that.

    I do get where you’re coming from, and I definitely think more playwrighting needs to be sourced locally. Interesting things happen at a local level that most of us miss. However, at this point, I do think cultural cross-pollination is unavoidable. The real issue for me is making sure we’re focusing on producing locally-created art. But, I think I get what you’re saying.

  3. Hi Nicol!
    This just reminded me of a friend (Jillian Lynn Johnson) in New York who is experimenting with social media (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare) in her theatre work. The audience follows characters on twitter or friends them on Facebook, unveiling another series of private performances just for them. This happens both before the show and during, so people are receiving tweets that the characters are posting in real time. Thought that was neat, though I know very different than what you’re talking about here. But it’s a fun way to use these social tools to make the “world” of the play even more real.
    I feel like the relationship between social media and theatre is still being defined, so it’s up to this generation to figure out what to do with it. I’m kind of shocked by the amount of people and organizations in the arts that have little to no online presence. They’re being left behind, and they will disappear eventually.

  4. There’s something vaguely similar that some webcomic artists do with their characters. In particular, I’m thinking of Questionable Content. http://www.questionablecontent.net/twitter.php
    The main cast members have twitter accounts. I’m not sure if it does anything to promote Questionable Content or not.

    That’s a cool idea for a show, too. I think there’s a lot of ways to use Twitter in particular – Facebook seems to be pretty successful for just straight-up marketing and event invitation – that are still being explored.

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