Audience Engagement-Careful What You Wish For

One of the biggest topics of discussion these days is about engaging audiences. Often during these discussions, people talk about the way things used to be when audiences weren’t expected to sit passively in a dark theatre with the suggestion that maybe things need to move back in that direction.

I came across a link to a very interesting book on the subject, The Making of American Audiences by Richard Butsch. Last week, someone linked to the chapter on the decline of audience sovereignty (I apologize for not noting who.) What parts are online made for a very interesting read.

I backed up to the earlier chapters about the rowdy working class “b’hoys” who were very engaged, moreso than we might like. They would get up on stage with the actors at times and chase each other around. They would make actors repeat sections of the performance that they liked, often dozens of times, before they allowed the show to continue. If they didn’t like something the actor or manager did, they would call them out on stage for an explanation and apology. Edmund Kean refused to perform in Boston when audiences were small. When he returned four years later, people remembered the slight and audiences in New York rioted both inside and outside the theatre. He was met with the same reception in Boston a month later.

Imagine audiences that were so invested in theatre that people in one city were offended on behalf of another four years later.

The relationship between audience and performers wasn’t always so destructive. Some greenhorns, “green’uns”, believed so strongly in the reality of the performance they might climb on stage and offer money to characters suffering destitution. The b’hoys would attend performances regularly and were knowledgeable about the different works and familiar with the actors of the companies. While they might challenge an actor’s interpretation of Shakespeare when it differed from their own, they would also provide prompting when a line was forgotten out of a desire to see that the show went off well for the newer attendees. There could be a strong sense of ownership and rapport with the actors who appreciated the interactions.

However, in time, the actors became adept at managing the interactions with the audience, taking some of their control away. The b’hoys in turn became so invested in their favorite actors, they began to demand respectful treatment from the audience on their behalf, thereby ceding some of their ability to make demands on the performance.

Despite whatever control the working classes were exerting over their fellows, it was still too vulgar for the wealthier gentry classes. They began to move to theaters frequented by better classes of people and then abandoned theatre entirely in favor of opera. Respectable people did not go to the theatre.

According to Butsch, the focus was about opera as a place where respectable people gathered moving away from attending a performance because of a star. The orthodoxy of class was enforced by the dress code. Working class folks could go to some of the better theatres, but the requirement of kid gloves, good clothes and a clean shave helped to exclude them. “The introduction of reserved seating also made the exclusion of undesirables more manageable.”

Later chapters chart the shift of arts attendance away from being a male pursuit to one associated with the female gender.

It was very interesting to read about how our current attendance environment gradually developed. There was certainly a separation of the wealthy elites and the working class. However, even the working class had its own insider groups who were in the know and enforced certain expectations of behavior and knowledge upon those who were new to their community.

Really, this is a function of human nature and not specific to the arts. Not long ago IT departments were the source of frequent jokes because of their stereotypical disdain for those who hadn’t used computers enough to know how to troubleshoot simple problems. Now that people have more technology experience and there isn’t a need to enter arcane commands at a DOS prompt, that stereotype isn’t as prevalent. I think that is the state people in the arts are aspiring to when they talk about engaging audiences–getting them involved and familiar enough with an arts experience to dispel some of the negative stereotypes.

My “careful what you wish for” title to this entry doesn’t really anticipate a return to those wild and wooly times when performers had to dodge projectiles. It may only just feel like you are inviting that sort of chaos as you approach the process of audience engagement. It may result in the 21st century equivalent of calling the manager or actor on stage to explain themselves. This currently happens with celebrities’ personal lives where they are expected to respond to allegations about what they were doing at certain times and places. It doesn’t happen as much with their professional choices because the general public doesn’t feel empowered enough to be invested in caring.

But what if they were taught that it was an area in which their involvement was valued…

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. (

My most recent role was as Executive 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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