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Honesty with the Audience

ART TIMES December 2007


Every theater company that ever was is completely dependent on one crucial player in the theatrical experience: the audience. That proposition seems so obvious, so straightforward, so completely self-evident that it seems impossible that anyone would doubt it. Yet some theater companies put their relationship with their audience at risk, not by being artistically daring, not by ignoring their expectations, but by means even more stupid: by being dishonest.

Just recently I read a review of a production by a well-respected theater company, in which the reviewer mentioned that the company had publicized many worthy aspects of the production, but neglected to inform the world that the production was three and a half hours long. The reviewer had an excellent point: the company owed it to the audience to let them know what they were letting themselves in for, and didn’t. At least that’s not an outright fraud, but it is a failure to be honest about the product, to ensure that the buyer knows what they’re buying. When you are utterly dependent for your very existence on the people you are keeping in the dark until they are in their seats, should you be surprised if repercussions eventually come your way?

Years ago, I worked with a small theater company that put a certain laudatory phrase on their publicity and brochures, something like, “outstanding, cutting-edge, even revolutionary theater.” And they credited that statement to the New York Times. What a great quote, right? What a terrific thing to be able to put on the brochure, the letterhead, the advertisement, the poster, right? Well, that phrase had indeed appeared in the New York Times. It had appeared in the calendar-of-events listing, exactly as the company publicist herself wrote it, just like every other listing in the calendar. It did not represent the critical judgment of any writer or editor actually employed by the Times in any way, shape or form.

Just now, I am aware of a situation in which a well-known professional company is billing a production as a “world premiere.” That, of course, has help spark interest in the audience that attends this theater to quite a noticeable degree. The problem is that the play in hand has already had its “world premiere” a year ago, elsewhere.

These were frauds, perpetrated by the company on its own audience.

All it takes, these days, to expose such a deception is a few minutes casual browsing via your favorite Internet search engine. This fraud will come out sooner or later. Why take such a stupid chance? Why risk alienating the key element in your operation, the one that keeps you alive?

There are obvious answers—carelessness, stupidity, cupidity, desperation, hubris. To me, there is a more insidious and deeper answer. The odd thing about today’s theater is that many practitioners of the art are quite deeply alienated from the people they do it for. You hear it in casual snide references: “the blue-hairs,” “the yahoos in the seats.” You see it in the attitude that audience expectations are irrelevant, that the audience has some sort of duty to come and pay for tickets, regardless of whether or not they enjoy or respect the work offered. You hear it in how theater artists talk about their work as if the audience did not exist, as though the theater exists purely as a means to satisfy the private inclinations and obsessions of the actor, the director, the writer.

The root of this attitude lies in the self-glorifying concept of the artist as Romantic outsider, prophet, visionary, sole perceiver of truth and justice, oracular enunciator of social and cultural revelation. This ubermensch has no need to care what the peons on the seats think; it is not for them to think, only to bow in humble respect. This idea has done enough damage during the last 150 years. It’s time for it to die.

We owe it to ourselves to reconnect with our audiences. We need to share the work with them, to learn from them what they need from us, to find the meeting point between their existence and ours. We can start with a very simple plan: let’s be honest with them. Let’s tell the truth about what we are putting before them. Let’s earn our accolades before we parade them. Let’s treat the audience as the key element we know it really is.

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