Seeing Your Stories In The Audience

If you want to see a good example of a show that is answering people’s need to see themselves and their stories on stage, check out Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. The show is on Netflix, but you can catch episodes on YouTube as well.

Actually, the best examples aren’t the show episodes but the Deep Cut videos. The show itself is scripted and addresses social, economic and political issues with comedy–attempting to communicate serious issues without feeling preachy.

The Deep Cuts are separate videos of conversations Minhaj has with the audience. At first it seemed they were using them to keep the show in people’s minds when there weren’t any new episodes being released. Now the Deep Cuts seem to be a feature of their own. Where they used to be only around 5 minutes long, they now rival the length of the regular episodes.

What I had noticed in some of the earliest episodes of the show was that there seemed to be a very racially mixed group of people in the front row of the audience. The fact I noticed this made me realize just how homogeneous live studio audiences tend to appear on TV. At first I was thinking he was making an effort to seat diverse faces in the front rows, but once I started seeing the Deep Cut episodes where the camera is turned toward the whole audience rather than just catching the first couple rows, I realized there was no difference between the first row and any other row.  (So if there was anyone who said there aren’t any Asians in NYC interested in seeing a show dealing with topical issues, Minhaj proves them wrong.)

The stuff the audience asks Minhaj runs the gamut from asking him to choose between two silly options to making fun of his enthusiastic hand gesturing to questions about pop culture and his relationship with his parents. Many of the questions are derived from his family background as Muslim immigrants from India, which again has dealt with everything from parental expectations and Bollywood references to more serious issues associated with that identity.

Or rather, the questions are derived from a SHARED experience and background. Minhaj often turns the question back on the person and gets their answer. It is as much seeing your stories in the audience as it is on stage.

In a recent Deep Cut episode, he discussed being on Ellen DeGeneres Show and correcting Ellen when she mispronounced Hasan. He said he saw his mother cringe in the audience and decided to address it. As a comedian, he did it in a light-hearted way, but he said his father was angry with him on the drive home. Minhaj observes that his father’s generation had to tolerate the indignity of having their names mispronounced in order to survive and make a place for their kids, but that he felt like it was his generation’s responsibility to hold people to make the effort to use their real names rather than convenient shorthand.

I think it is conversations and stories like that which help establish the sense of trust audiences need to feel assured that their faces and stories will be depicted with sincerity and accuracy.

Now how that translates into something arts organizations can bring to their homes, I don’t know. It is definitely different for every community. In some places it may be facilitated by humor, in other places, food.

Making a pitch to a local community to come see a comedian who will talk about the economic forces that make retirement increasingly impossible, but will also chat with the audience about his favorite hip hop artist and sneakers may garner no interest even though that describes an episode of Patriot Act. Not everyone can make the format work the same way and Minhaj put thousands of hours of sweat into his career before getting his show.

It is almost guaranteed that mistakes will be made.  Readers may recall my post about Mixed Blood Theater and the fits and false starts they experienced while trying to develop a meaningful program with the Somali community in their neighborhood.

 

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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