Does The Audience Serve The Community?

Performing arts organizations are very much aware that they are increasingly at a disadvantage offering entertainment in a single location at set times in an environment when it can be obtained on demand, paused and continued. This weekend I really started wondering if we are ceding too much ground without a fight. Today, Artjournal.com happened to link to a piece on The Guardian website by Mark Ravenhill where he expressed something akin to my thoughts.

“But on one subject there does seem to be an almost universal consensus, and that is that you – the reader, the listener – are bored, most of the time. Look at any contemporary guide to making art, or working in the media, and the assumption is that an audience’s natural state is one of restless ennui. Our job as writers is to provide a sort of espresso shot. Grab them quickly, grab them hard – otherwise they will change channels or walk away.”

What I was thinking this weekend is that while we always talk about arts organizations needing to better serve their communities. We often hear how we have to change our processes and our thinking to acknowledge the changing expectations of our audiences. This is absolutely correct. We need to evaluate the ten thousand things we do every day in the context of shifting expectations.

But I got to wondering. Are our audience members serving their community very well? Don’t they have a responsibility to the larger group and are we complicit in letting them get away with shirking it?

This weekend we presented our annual dance festival where invited groups of students and professional companies perform short pieces. I have sort of resigned myself to the fact people are going to walk in at 30, 45, 60, 75 and 90 minutes into the show. I think that perhaps I have started ceding too much in the way of lowered expectations to our audience.

We do close the box office 30-45 minutes after the show has started when it appears the trickle has finally abated. We still end up turning 10-15 people away who don’t have tickets but admitting that many or more who do. You know, the people carrying the pieces of paper with the time emblazoned across them who should therefore know things started 75 minutes ago?

Over the last decade or so I have trying to shift away from the disapproving figure looking at his watch noting just how late people are. It used to be that you ended up watching television monitors or wandering around the lobby if you missed the last late seating interval. Recently, I have begun to wonder if the kinder, gentler, forgiving approach in hopes of making the attendance experience of a dwindling audience feel more welcome may be counterproductive in the long term.

What really annoys me isn’t so much the late arrivals but the early departures from events after friends have performed. I have addressed this in the past. When there are children involved either as audience members or performers, the message this conveys is that the arts have no value outside of an acquaintance’s involvement in them. For older people, it further socializes the idea that the live experience is disposable.

The dance pieces this weekend weren’t lengthy or based on some abstract concept. Each group had about seven to nine minutes to perform so if you didn’t like what you saw, it was over shortly. The first piece of the night was a satire of ballet. Even if you don’t know enough about ballet to get some of the jokes, a lot of it was just physical comedy. I can think of a number of reasons why people might choose not to attend in the first place, but once one is in the theatre, it was fairly clear one need not be an initiate to enjoy the performance.

Lest you think I am attributing poor intentions to people who had other motivations for leaving, a few groups told us outright they were leaving because their friend was done dancing. (The same thing happens with our choral concerts.)

Getting back to the idea of the individual’s responsibility. Attending a live performance constitutes a relationship. It is a relationship between you, the audience and more importantly, the performers. This is the case even with those you don’t know personally. These performers can only be at a specific place at a time which dictates some of the constraints of the performance. Even though you seem to be one of possibly a very large group in the audience, how you conduct yourself has a definite impact.

This is the message the arts need to convey. Not in an explicit lecture, but in the subtext of what we communicate be it in person or via the technological tools we employ. Last week I was musing about what back to basics value the arts can embody. I am starting to think maybe it is personal relationships.

People are beginning to become disenchanted with a situation where they have 10,000 Facebook friends, but no one to bring them chicken soup when they are sick. While we have grown tolerant of it, I’ll bet people would prefer not to be placed on pause while someone answers their cellphone or displaced by a texted conversation.

Half the battle can be won by heeding the advice we have been receiving for years–provide places and opportunities for people to socialize. In some respects that is the easy part because it just involves money for renovations, furniture and staffing.

The other part of the equation is communicating the values of responsibilities to the community without preaching. It is a fine line between encouraging people to arrive promptly and remain, and adopting policies which make them feel like they are being punished for breaking the rules. For those with little experience in attending performances, it may sound contradictory to tell them not to feel inhibited about expressing approval for a wonderful performance even though people are glaring at them but that they should heed the glares when they start screaming and whistling as their friend appears on stage. One calls attention to an excellent performance, the other calls attention to you and your relationship with an individual.

Printing guidelines in programs and on your website counts on people taking the time to review them. Also, at first glance they appear to be the hidebound list of rules which intimidate some from attending in the first place. Curtain speeches can be more personable but….is preaching the the choir of prompt people.

Surely, something should be said otherwise you miss the opportunity to reinforce the value of the experience you are offering. The repercussions of not doing so might not be immediate but manifest in the next generation (or absence thereof). If you stay positive, you can be explicit and thank people for valuing the experience of live performance unmediated and insulated by technology. You welcome the opportunity to discuss the performance in person with the audience in the lobby or coffee shop after the show. And if they need time to digest the experience, you would love to read their comments on the organization’s web forum later.

Interacting with the late comers/early departers in a constructive way is tough. They already know they are breaking a convention and are prepared for any conversation, including directions to the restrooms, to be instilled with some degree of disapproval or scolding. The one approach that comes to mind leaves a lot of opportunity for patronizing tones to creep in.

My thought is that the ushers in the lobby be gracious and say he/she will escort the late comers in since it can be difficult to get ones bearings in the dark. While awaiting an appropriate break in the action, the group lingers near photos of the performers. I haven’t worked out the gist of the conversation yet because everything I think of can easily slide into the wrong tone. Essentially using the photos to give a face to the performers, the discussion touches on how long the rehearsals were and how much concentration is needed to perform before a live audience. How much the late comers will hopefully enjoy the performance and how important their approval is to the performers.

As you might surmise, the subtext is about how the performers and audience interact. While the artists are professional and will give their 110% performance regardless of audience size or reaction, things are likely to go to 125%+ for a good audience. I don’t want the performers to be vague and distant in those people’s minds, especially if their seats are indeed far from the stage. I want the late comers to feel a connection between themselves and the performers, seek them out on stage, realize the importance of their presence and hopefully, of their responsibilities, relative to those assembled in the facility.

The opportunity to actually see and interact with performers at some juncture contributes to this goal. I have made plenty of other entries about aloof artists and administrators so I won’t get into those aspects of the experience.

I am going to continue to think on the whole idea of reminding people they have a responsibility to the community rather than believing we need to passively accept shifting expectations. I would like to hear other people’s thoughts on this matter. Remember, I am not suggesting this stance be adopted to rationalize not changing. I merely propose that faced with millions of people Twittering everywhere they go, it doesn’t automatically follow that we need to accede to the expectation of Twittering being permitted during performances.

I am also intrigued by the idea of the arts embodying the values of personal contact and would be interested in seeing if anyone has any thoughts along these lines. I think much can be accomplished if we avoid declarative statements like You should/shouldn’t, must/mustn’t… Something as simple as, “(Discipline), It’s All About Contact” on a poster and ten thousand images can immediately be plugged in below the caption and a campaign begins.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

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.

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3 thoughts on “Does The Audience Serve The Community?”

  1. As a culture we have taught audiences that it’s perfectly okay to be late. If you go to the movies and show up at the listed starting time you are subjected to fifteen to twenty minutes of previews. Unless you are attending a blockbuster and need to get a seat, it’s perfectly alright to cruise in during the previews. Why not show the previews before the listed start time?

    The same is true of the big name celebrities concerts. I went a Celene Dion concert that was purported to start at 8 PM. I hadn’t been to anything like that in decades. I got stuck in a lot of traffic and parked about ten minutes before 8. I ran to get in on time – I even forgot where I parked my car – only to find that she was actually starting at 9 PM. People streamed in for that hour while those that showed up on time were subjected to ‘opening acts’.

    In fact, the only thing that people are required to arrive on time for are travel reservations. For everything else, it seems, it’s perfectly okay to arrive whenever you feel like it. Even television lets you be late if you have TIVO.

    Changing things that are culturally acceptable is close to impossible unless society as a whole stops catering to it. Catering to the latecomers disrespects those that got there on time so everyone running events should start on time. If they don’t this won’t ever stop.

    Keeping people from leaving early is an equally perplexing problem and is only slightly less acceptable than arriving late. Both are rude but those that do it don’t realize that because they haven’t been brought up to respect timeliness.

    For programs that involve kids, having a group number at the beginning and the end hopefully would keep parents in their seats. For other events, concerts or whatever, programming the blockbusters for the beginning and end may help. Of course figuring out what those blockbusters are is the age old challenge.

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  2. My suggestion presumes that there is not assigned seating at the kind of event described….Rope off the last 3-4 rows for latecomers. Ushers will do as you suggest, say they’ll assist latecomers to seating “in the back rows where latecomers sit.”

    I’m not sure how to handle the early departers mess. Maybe to suggest to them that next time they sit in the back so they don’t distract others?

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  3. @Missy, Thanks for your comment. The thing is, that only addresses the results in an attempt to reduce the impact on the audience. It doesn’t make any progress guiding people toward valuing the experience.

    I think everyone’s ultimate desire is not to scold people and enforce rules about entering, exiting and conducting oneself during a performance. The goal is to have people invested in the entire experience and not just the part where their friend appears.

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