On Audiences – Part 1

Last week had me thinking about audiences, at first due to two not great experiences — a relatively unusual thing for me.

The first was at the tour of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was incidentally a great show. As I stood up during intermission, the woman behind me saw fit to stick her legs out on top of my seat, tapping her feet together to clear caked dirt from her boots. At the second, the Spirit Awards screening of Tar, the people behind me spent the entire 158 minutes of the movie alternately scrolling their (bright-screened) phones and (loudly) offering color commentary (“The noise is BEHIND her!”). Others I know have reported similar experiences. It’s as if we have forgotten how to behave in public after the 3 years we’ve been mainly consuming entertainment at home on the couch.

There’s a part of me that chafes a little at the idea of “appropriate behavior” at the theatre or the cinema. Intellectually, I am aware it’s a form of gatekeeping, that keeps people out because they don’t know or are not following behavioral expectations. At least in these two cases, though, I will posit a guess that these people understood the cultural norms — but that they simply did not think that the rules applied to them.

I’m all about making the audience experience more inclusive. Live-tweeting sections during some performances? Bring it on! Creature comforts like shorter late seating holds and being able to bring drinks into the theater — also a plus — as well as greater interaction such as talk backs, backstage tours, and cast meet-and-greets. Theaters like La Jolla Playhouse have been very open about programs, especially for youth, that discuss audience expectations so that they are immediately more comfortable in the space; even teaching people about things like the fact that a show begins at a certain time, as opposed to many live music events when you can just walk into the concert at any point.

OTOH, I also recognize that the performing arts in general are having a really hard time re-building audiences after several years of staying home. Motivation is tough. I know for sure that I am part of the problem; it’s very tempting after a long day to “Netflix and chill” rather than go out — though every time I actually get up off my butt and go out I feel about 100x better for the experience!

Because the truth is that I think that there’s a really important relationship between art and the audience (which is a post for another day or this will get far too long to read!) And being a part of a community experiencing the art is a crucial part of that.