Baby Boomers Secretly Yearn To Play With Us

ArtsFwd has an audio interview related to the audience engagement posts I made yesterday and about two weeks ago.

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.)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


3 thoughts on “Baby Boomers Secretly Yearn To Play With Us”

  1. Regarding pre-show audience talks, I believe that I was the first artistic director to establish a pre-show background talk before every performance – very important – of every play back in 1988 at the Sacramento Theatre Company. We called it Prologue, and in 1995 I brought it to my current theatre in Rochester, NY: Geva Theatre Center. We now offer it over 200 times per season. The thirty-minute talk is usually given by an actor from that production, and statrs one hour before curtain. It is hands-down trhe most popular audience engagement program I have ever seen, with fully one-third of the audience arriving early to exprience it. – Mark Cuddy

  2. Hi Joe!

    Great post. I’m glad to read that you listened to and got something out of the ArtsFwd podcast. You raise a really interesting question about whether Charlie’s comment about Baby Boomers being more interested in participating than young people is really an assumption/projection. Have you reached out to Charlie for clarification? If not, I’m happy to do so.

    All best,
    Karina Mangu-Ward & the ArtsFwd team
    Director, Activating Innovation at EmcArts

    • Karina-

      No, I hadn’t thought to reach out to Charlie. I saw him as throwing a dash of cold water on the idea that young people want participatory experiences. It made me start to wonder, how do we “know” young people want more interactive/participatory experiences. Is there research? And even if there is research showing that as a response from a demographic, is there any qualification about what that experience would look like? Is it participation in live performance, or as was suggested in the podcast, the opportunity to work with artists and receive guidance on one’s projects?

      Even if people say they want more interaction, I wonder if that is what they truly want or just an assumption based on the fact they aren’t enjoying the current situation. Essentially–I am bored sitting here passively so I must crave the opposite experience of having an interactive experience. But if they really haven’t experienced the opposite experience, will they be satisfied by it or will discover it makes them very comfortable.

      Instead of being apathetic about the experience due to boredom, they may actively avoid it due to fear.


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