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Friday, January 22, 2010

Finding an Audience

Say what you will about Tyler Perry's onstage antics as Madea, or about the artistic value of his work (something with which Spike Lee has taken issue), Perry is drawing audiences to live theatre that might otherwise not be there.
While I have not been terribly impressed with some of Broadway's recent "blockbusters" like Wicked and Spamalot, I cannot deny that both shows attracted demographics that had been long absent (or at least under-represented) in theatre houses for a while. Wicked brought tween and teen girls (and their parents), and Spamalot reached that all-important 18-34 male audience.
While I do cringe at the prospect of the Spider-Man musical, I must admit that it may invite a few audience members who haven't been to a live production in years - if ever.
The alternative approach of continuing to pander to the existing live audience with tried-and-true (read "overdone") chesnuts - the modus operandi of dinner theatres and community theatre groups - may be fiscally sound for the moment, but has one major inherent flaw.
Unlike theatre which has lived under the prognosis of "death" for around a century now, the audiences that hunger for typical live theatre fare are literally dying, replaced in decreasing numbers by artists coming to support other artists. They are not strictly "appreciators," like the the audiences they have succeeded, and often alternate between both sides of the "footlights" offering competing fare of the same type to the dwindling audience.
Moving forward, it is the role - if not the responsibility - of the modern playwright, artistic director, producer, and theatre artist to cultivate a new audience.
We must be willing to expand the creative process and our own definitions of theatre to draw in those audience members who heretofore didn't know (or didn't care) that we exist.
Historically, every new age of theatre has started with an experiment - driven by changes in the audience and social philosophy and by advances in technology.
What will the be the future of live theatre?
I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.


davidk said...

It's an interesting point you raise. I've been really hard on the "jukebox musicals" that have come to the fore in the last decade and a half, because to me they're not "real theater." But, I do know that some people enjoy them, and I should take into account that theater only survives if people come to see the shows, so you have to write shows that people will come see.

I guess I need to keep that in mind as Phantom 2 nears its world premiere. As usual, the audience will have its say, and if they like it, it will be a success, and if not, it will go away.

cgeye said...

Dissing what audience we have is counter-intuitive:

The question might be: Why aren't our audiences writing plays? Why is there an age gap when playwriting isn't a sport, or something that need a younger stamina.

Brady Darnell said...

It's not about dissing the current audience - though I'm certainly not above doing so.
I think it's more about the sin of underestimating them.
Yes, there are some very unimaginative and conservative members of the current audience. I recall that the house received at least one letter condemning the portrayal of ladies pregnant out of wedlock in "Once Upon a Mattress."
I once got a late night phone call from a patron who was angry that a crucifix was thrown in a spoof of "Dracula" that I directed.
I think for the most part, however, these audiences are willing to take a chance on something new -- provided, that is, that "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" or "Escanaba en Da Moonlight" isn't also showing somewhere in town.