I am not sure when Culturebot fell off my daily reading list, but the last time I referenced a post was 2014. Thankfully Artsjournal.com linked to a piece by Andy Horowitz this week so the blog is back on my radar. Andy wrote a relatively long piece about the need to focus on audience need and experience. While he has a TL;DNR summary at the beginning, the really good stuff is buried in the expanded version.
The broad strokes won’t be new to long time readers. Horowitz notes that despite the wake up call of Covid and all the money funders have provided for engagement and innovation, a lot of theaters are still focusing on legacy audiences and providing the same type of audience experiences as they had in the past.
He says arts and culture organizations need to be creating a sense of belonging and connection for new audiences. He uses a couple of personal examples. In the first, he talks about arriving in NYC and wanting to be a part of what was happening at P.S. 122, (now known as Performance Space New York), because so much great work was happening. But he couldn’t figure out a way in. Everybody already seemed to know everyone else. He started getting involved with other organizations and projects until he eventually cultivated the right relationships and started working at P.S. 122.
In another part of his piece, he raises a similar example of his 4.5 year old son changing pre-schools mid-year:
It was a bumpy transition since at midyear all the other kids knew each other; some had started “going to school” together during the pandemic. …His teachers said he might not feel comfortable onstage and might prefer to sit with us; he came home from school telling us how he wasn’t able to learn the songs or the choreography because the other kids already knew it, things like that. As the day approached, we were filled with trepidation and uncertainty. But lo and behold, when graduation day came, our little guy sat with his class, walked onstage with his class, sang the songs, did the choreography, and behaved perfectly the whole time!! I have never been more invested in a performance in my life.
He talks about how brave people need to be to take chances in so many respects, including learning new things and trying to integrate into social settings in which we don’t feel we belong. Horowitz reiterates what I have written before about creating an environment in which people can see themselves and their stories depicted and spend time with family and friends. Something I have overlooked is working to provide the sense you are among friends even if you didn’t know anyone when you arrived. (his emphasis)
I think that this is what every audience everywhere wants when they come to the theater. We want to feel like we are meeting up with friends. We want to see people we know in the lobby, we want to see people we know onstage, we want to know the person that works in the box office and the ushers, we want to know the people seated next to us and across the room in another section so we can wave to them and meet them at intermission for a drink. There is nothing worse than feeling like a stranger milling around with other strangers awkwardly avoiding eye contact, worrying about if you belong. If you run a theater and you aren’t trying to create that sense of welcome, belonging and inclusion with your audience, then you are failing them, it doesn’t matter what you put onstage.
As someone whose name is on an alcohol license, I am a little wary about encouraging people to literally replicate this exact scenario, but one experience Horowitz touts as bringing people together was a scheme in which an event made ordering a single beer as expensive as ordering a beer for 10 people. The result was that strangers organized themselves into groups to get the cheapest possible drinks they could:
I don’t remember the exact amount but a single beer was, I think, $10 and 10 beers was maybe $1? Like that. So as soon as someone got to the front of the line they immediately started talking to the people around them to get enough drink orders together to get the cheaper drinks. Never have I ever seen a group of strangers connecting and laughing and cooperating so quickly and joyfully as I did that night. I’m pretty sure that the bar was itself an art project.
Perhaps it was a lesson the TV show Cheers was teaching us back in the 80s and we just weren’t paying close enough attention.