Monday, September 27, 2010

It's the Audience, Stupid

Yes, the audience.  That was one of the most satisfying aspects of Tuesdays with Morrie, we kept clearly in mind who we were doing this play for. That probably sounds silly, doesn't it.  Who else does one do a play for?  Let me explain. 
Sunset during a forest fire, as seen from the patio.

We were the only professional theatre in the whole valley, population (I believe) approximately 3000. This  was definitely an advantage, but does not mean we could take the audience for granted.  The Playhouse worked very hard at publicity: posters, newspaper articles, a radio ad, and word-of-mouth.  We knew we couldn't assume anything.  Our opening weekend we were competing with a very impressive local chamber music festival.  A local gastropub hosts live music at least four nights a week with bands both local and regional.  Sure, the closest cinemas were forty-five minutes away, but people out there are used to driving long distances.  A weekend in Seattle (three hours away) was not unheard of.  And netflix is everywhere.  We had competition. 

Goat's Peak
 That said, we were still the only theatre in town, and that definitely worked in our favor.  There's something to be said for novelty.  The play itself also generated attention; people knew the book, or movie, possibly had even seen the play when it ran in Seattle, so a buzz had started even before any of us arrived. That gave us all a bit of an unexpected lift right at the start. 

The hike to Blue Lake

We (specifically the out-of-towners, namely the actors and me) also began getting to know people in town, most of whom made clear they were looking forward to seeing what we accomplished.  My favorite example: at one point Isaiah (Mitch) got pulled over because of a burned-out headlight.  Once their business was completed, the sheriff asked what brought him to the area and when he learned about the play, he got rather excited.  He loved the book, apparently, and promised he come see the show (I'll have to ask if he showed up).

One of my outdoor offices. 
 Because of this the potential audience began to collect specific faces and specific biographies for us.  We knew who had lost loved ones in the last year or two, who was worried about aging parents, who was questioning her career path, who simply loved theatre.  One of the dominant themes in the play is the importance of giving to others.  Perhaps any work of art ought to keep this in mind, but when it was right there in the writing, when it was, in fact one of the themes I chose to emphasize, it made keeping the audience in mind that much easier. 

Another sunset viewed from the patio.  Yes, there's a plastic lawn goose in the sage.  
 We knew we were dealing with a sophisticated audience-base.  Any temptation we might have felt to condescend to this crowd as a bunch of credulous yokels was quickly quashed.  These were people who knew good art, good theatre, and they'd know if we gave them something sub-par.  But they were also coming prepared to enjoy the work.  They were giving us the benefit of the doubt.  They were NOT coming to prove their artistic bona fides by --as John (Morrie) put it-- "disagreeing with choices."

On the way to 30 mile (?)
 I can't tell you how freeing that is.  I wouldn't say I've played for a lot of cynical, overly-judgemental audiences.  Usually my only complaint is that they're too small.  But New York audiences can be rather jaded.  Going to work each day with the sense that we were building something many people were looking forward to, were assuming would be at least worthy, was a pleasure I haven't had in a while. 

Still Another Sunset as seen from the patio.  This became a ritual for me.  In case you hadn't noticed.
I think I can humbly say that we fulfilled their hopes.  I haven't found out what the final numbers were, (and it's a simple financial fact the Playhouse needed to sell as many tickets as possible), but it was gratifying to sense the energy in the room each of the four shows I attended.  I wasn't just pleased at the reaction the play got, it was a joy being in a theatre that felt rooted in a community.  People came expecting to have a good night out, and the play was only part of it.  Intermission --which typically run for ten minutes, fifteen at the most, in most theatres-- was twenty minutes at the Merc, not because the space was so huge, not because it was so hard for people to get in and out of their seats or the building, not for any logistical reasons at all but because audience members knew one another and wanted time to socialize.  This was a night out, an event, in a way that felt (here's one of those words I love) archetypal.   
Approaching Storm, same viewpoint. 
This experience reaffirmed some of the fundamental joys of live performance for me.  In some ways I haven't had this experience since I was in college.  Being connected to a community, having that community's issues, questions, struggles and tendencies (good or bad) in mind while plays were chosen and produced, that felt relevant.  Maybe I'm simply describing the pleasures of being a big fish in a small pond, but I think that's not the whole story.  In a place as huge and saturated with live performance as New York City, it's hard to keep such things in mind.  In NYC it's also easy to let business or career concerns overwhelm or waylay one.  Instead of thinking about connecting with an audience, giving them a gift, one obsesses over whether the right people, important people are in the audience, people who might be able to give one other, more ambitious (satisfying, lucrative, wider-reaching, more stable, longer running...) work.  I have a lot to say about work as-career-stepping-stone, but I think I'll save that for later.  For now, I'm focusing on the gratitude I feel for lessons relearned, and possibly inspiration rekindled.  
My house and the town of Twisp

For another artist's thoughts on some of these same issues, stop by friend Jeff's blog right here, if you haven't already. 


Twispie said...

Hey Sweetie,

I really enjoyed reading this one.

Greg said...

I love to see theatre in NY, but you remind me of(as I rediscovered for myself this summer) the beauty of theatre outside the city limits, which is the community that grows around the pursuit like a wildflower garden: the actors, the audience, staff, the volunteers.

I'm so happy you got to experience that this season...and to live for a few months in such an absolutely beautiful place. No wonder you hadn't posted sooner - your heart must be full with so many things as a result of your travels.

Jeff said...

Thanks for the referral, Patrick, and for being as simpatico with my psychic state as ever. It's great to hear about an experience like this, and a good reminder to me of the standards we should all keep in mind. Also: WE MISS YOU.

Hopefully we can rectify that sooner than later...

Jess said...

Okay, I'm officially ready to visit your house out there! :)

I know you went out there as you continue to pursue your fame and fortune, but, even if you weren't getting rich in the process, the scenery alone would be worth the trip!

Birdie said...

Love the new format. And I loved Still Another Sunset.

The greatest thing we can take with us from such an experience is the memories; and we can hope to replicate the experience elsewhere and with new friends. You have some of the best times. Or maybe it's just your point of view. But I'm glad to come along with you.

I am Jane Doe said...

Love this post! Yes! Yes! Yes!