Last month the San Francisco Chronicle ran an opinion piece by Nataki Garrett, the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, titled Theater can help drive economic recovery in S.F. and elsewhere. But not if it stays so white
She talks about how there are a lot of barriers to participation in theatre for new audiences like ticketing pricing, lack of representation on stage and in leadership, accessibility, etc., but focuses most of the piece on the formal attendance etiquette. She notes that in addition to “how to behave” sections on organization websites, Business Insider had published a similar guide as Broadway prepared to open post-Covid.
Even as the opportunity to re-write the narrative about who was was welcome presented itself as Covid restrictions loosened, traditional gatekeeping practices re-asserted themselves. She cites the example of the Tina Turner musical which encouraged audience response by design:
The musical takes audiences through the life of legendary rock ‘n’ roll icon Tina Turner, using her own popular songs to tell her story. It’s a theatrical performance that compels the audience to physically react, something Hall encourages in her audiences. Yet, when attending a preview performance in 2020, I watched white audience members scold other audience goers for their audible reactions to the electrifying performance. Their message was clear: Adhere to our rules or you’re not welcome.
In terms of alternative messaging to use in order to welcome audiences, Garrett gives the example of the playwrights notes for the Broadway show, “Skeleton Crew:”
Inserted in every “Playbill” was a note from the playwright on “Permissions for Engagements.” It reads in part: “Consider this an invitation to be yourselves in this audience. You are allowed to laugh audibly. You are allowed to have audible moments of reaction and response. This can be a church for some of us, and testifying is allowed.”
This isn’t a boilerplate text for widespread use. Every organization and show has a different context requiring a differently worded invitation.
A storytelling group in my community does a pretty good job of this prior to every session they have when they layout a framework of behavior. The rules are mostly about eliminating crosstalk at the tables while people were telling stories. People are encouraged to snap, stomp and yell things like “You know that’s right!”
I think this works out well for them because there is really only one thing they ask you not to do and then invite you to feel free to have a spontaneous response. By providing examples of what form that response might take, they manage to generally keep things from getting too disruptive for both the audience and storytellers unaccustomed to public speaking.