04 August 2009

An Event


I'm fascinated by accounts of the theatre and opera as places where people went to be seen, to make important deals and carry out vital communication. They seem to me rather like revisionist history, so biased am I to the notion that theatre is of itself the purpose of going to the theatre. I read about some important assignation that took place in the opera house and immediately think, "Oh come now, Author -- being a bit dramatic with the staging now, aren't we?" Yet I have to acknowledge that such meetings were a vital part of what kept the theatre alive in its glory days. Imagine a world without Twitter (it's easy if you try) or even phones -- to see and be seen was the only way to exist in whatever social strata you lived or aimed to live.

Whilst in Italy we sat down with Hanna Salo of
Teatro Boni fame, and had a discussion as to what we could bring with us next year in terms of a production. The discussion turned to a trading of agreement about the frustration of getting audience these days, be it in Italy or the US or, I don't know, Istanbul (not Constantinople). We had just had the inauguration of their refurbished outdoor anfiteatro, which had the feeling one wants every theatrical event to have -- one of a community coming together to meet each other anew and have a good time doing it. In the wake of this, I suggested that shows should be orchestrated to be more like events somehow. Events are what make people leave their places now-a-days. Events are exciting and promising and lend themselves to word-of-mouth advertising.

My notion was met with underwhelming enthusiasm, but the underwhelmation (is SO a word) was both well-intentioned and earned. Hanna and David Zarko have been struggling with the bizarre ups and downs of creating an audience for years now, on the front lines. Events come and go, and sometimes they even result in big groups, but repeating it is a different trick. Repeating it with any consistency is yet another. And here's the kicker: How does one keep it theatre, and genuine, while event-ing it up? No, my idea was not the solution for which we are searching.

And yet. I keep thinking about it. Some things I've remembered, and that have come up recently to feed this nascent fire:


  • Wife Megan gets really, really excited by rock concerts, and I sometimes wish I could bottle that and infect people with it to get them to come to theatre shows. Music concerts don't have to advertise all too hard. People know what they're getting, but don't know, at the same time. There's both familiarity and the potential for surprise.

  • The social event is the thing that nothing else can quite replace. Sure, if you really want to, you can live as an Internet hermit your whole life, but it's not very nice in the long run. People want to be around other people, preferably happy people, and when they are they want to socialize in some respect, whether that's discussing politics or screaming and making archaic hand gestures with great enthusiasm. Theatre repels, I think, in part because it is seen as discouraging participation and socialization. Sit here. Watch this. Don't talk.

  • An old acquaintance in DC -- Casey Kaleba -- is making headlines with his production of Living Dead in Denmark, which is a battle-rich fantasy set around classic Shakespeare characters (written, I might add, prior to all this hyper-popular zombie meta stuff of the past few years). I think people respond to this because it sounds like fun, and a unique experience. I know the theatre up here in NYC that premiered it (though I've never seen a single show of theirs) because it's this weird, sort of wonderfully fun idea: Vampire Cowboys.

  • The shows I've been a part of that succeeded in terms of audience had many features of an event-ful nature. They involved a number of people from a cohesive community, or had an accessible concept, or incorporated popular elements, or had a limited engagement, or were especially current, or some combination thereof. Many of those that failed in this regard had similar elements . . . but I also daresay we could feel when adequate anticipation had not been cultivated, prior to the event.
  • When I was young, the circus literally came to town. They'd set up a huge tent in the junior high soccer field, or occupy the Patriot Center, and for a little while conversation for children and adults would revolve around whether you'd been, or were going, or why you couldn't this year. This happened too with the ice-capades, but to a lesser degree, because you knew that someday you WOULD BE JUDGED. (I'm judging myself right now.) It was regular, annual, and as much an event as anything since.
  • At this point, I go to the movies for three reasons: 1) I want to be among the first to see something, to be able to discuss it; 2) I want to experience a particular movie with a group, or on a large screen, for whatevere reason particular to the movie; and/or 3) I want to be out, doing something, and often breaking routine. With all the alternative, affordable ways of seeing films now, these are my reasons. To be part of an event.
  • People go to parties for numerous reasons, any of which have the potential for a temporarily happier existence: food, drink, sex, excitement and/or all the emotions and changes associated with social activity. Similar to concerts, parties let you know what you can expect, but hold potential for great surprise. Cover, no cover, social circle, menu, open bar or no, these things are announced. Where you'll be and what you'll be doing at two AM, that's up to you and God.
Now me, I usually have a miserable time at parties. I'm too self-conscious, and the schmooze factor grates on me. I can probably count on one hand the excellent experiences I've had at parties, and they have several factors in common. I knew a good number of people there, we were united in some goal and/or people were more interested in having fun than getting somewhere. If I were good at parties, I probably would be in sales or somesuch, but I'm not, I'm in theatre, and we should be hosting parties, it seems.

The problem is (just one?) once you've identified event potential, and risen to the challenge of meeting it, and marketed your event successfully, and are on your way to repeating it . . . how do you keep what you're doing what you're doing? In other words, how can you invite discussion and participation from everyone without making it into a chaotic talk-show mess? Or feed bodies as well as souls without creating the dreadful dinner theatre? Or make something be perceived as special over and over again without resorting to gimmicks and trickery?

Maybe the answer is that you can't. I don't know. But I'm fascinated by the questions right now, for two reasons. One, I want to be a part of making theatre that is regarded as an event of this kind, even if it doesn't mean any more money or career advancement for me. Two, I am (as is this here 'blog) moving toward more integration in my outlook. (I hate how Microsoft that sentence ended up sounding, through no fault of my own.) That means asking both more of myself, and more from my world in general. I think the world can take it. Me, that remains to be seen. I don't mean to make a big, whoopin' deal out of this.

But I do mean to make it an event.

4 comments:

dave said...

"People know what they're getting, but don't know, at the same time. There's both familiarity and the potential for surprise."

For better or for worse, this already does apply to theatre. Which is why I'm more likely to see a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest", which I know I like but am interested in experiencing in a new way, than seeing something I've never heard of. Likewise your fantasy-battle Shakespeare (which, from here at least, basically sounds like roleplay gaming with a script and an audience).

Jeff Wills said...

That's just it, Dave -- it does, and it doesn't. Theatre relies (generally) much more on word of mouth than advertising. It's not just what the play is, but who's doing it, and you don't get a tidy trailer for new stories. Genres of movies, people readily understand. Genres of theatre -- generally -- not so much. I think we need to be doing more to meet them halfway on this, especially as it relates to new (or new to you) plays.

Patrick said...

You mentioned the two things I keep noticing, rock concerts and movies (not films). I've been wondering how to tap into that sense of event as well. To some extent I think it is tied up with how broad our communities have become. Greek and Elizabethan Drama were each dealing with very homogeneous communities. Likewise successful rock bands, movie director and movie franchises manage to find their communities. The people excited about Star Wars or Led Zeppelin go see those productions. The Yo-Yo Ma fans see to it that his concerts sell out as well, and there's probably not a whole lot of overlap with the other groups. So how do we find our communities? How do we see to it that the people who would like our work find out about it? I wonder if the big event is a way to get people to show up at first, but we have to make clear what we'll be providing during subsequent events. The habit of casting movie stars in stage productions is one attempt to get some cross-pollination, but the problem is, then you get people who love movies coming to theatre which may or may not show them how theatre is different-but-also-great. I could rabbit on about this...

Jeff Wills said...

As can I, Patrick. As can I. I agree with all your points. I am hesitant to approach it from the perspective of "converting" movie-goers, as Broadway seems to be doing. Accessing them somehow, but also giving them what they want in some new way, that's what I'd like. I think Cirque du Soleil did that (just not in a way in which I'm interested).

Whatever way, it is a question of community, certainly. I suppose with theatre it always has been, always will be.