Why They Don’t Come Back
Theatre-artists should stop worrying about those yearned-after potential audience members: netflix-users and big-concert-goers. The former like to stay home and will continue to do so. The latter only embrace culture than has been mass-approved, like Coldplay. They will not come to your theatre, because they do not like theatre!
I love this argument because if it were true, life would be so much simpler and we could just make theatre for theatre-lovers and not worry about the mainstream. But I have to disagree with it, on two counts.
First, it assumes that on the three-pronged fork of culture consumption, there is very little crossover: everyone sits on one of the prongs (small screens, big concerts, or live theatre). This assumption is wrong on its face. I, for example, practically live on Netflix: how else could I plow through “The West Wing”? I am perfectly happy to sit on my couch several nights a week, and go out to see a live show once a week. I loathe giant concerts, even by Radiohead, so I’m a two-pronger. I bet most people are two-prongers.
This leads me to my second point: people change. I was lucky enough to see a lot of theatre growing up, so it seems perfectly normal to head over to the Fringe Festival. But for most people, theatre doesn’t even exist. They need to learn how to see it. Maybe they make a friend with a theatre-goer and start going themselves. Of course, this doesn’t happen nearly enough. But don’t you think it’s possible? So then, shouldn’t theatres try to encourage that behavior?
I think the difference is simpler: you can lump netflixing & nose-bleeding (going to a giant concert) together on one side, and theatre-going on the other. The former has much less potential for disaster than the latter. If you rent a bad movie, you can turn it off. If you go see Springsteen, he’s going to play “Born To Run”. But what happens if you get roped into a dreadful musical aimed at nostalgic baby-boomers or an over-serious Chekhov “reinterpretation”? It’s a painful experience. It’s painful for the same reason theatre can be transcendent: it’s immediate, it’s inescapable, it’s brutal.
In some ways, there is too much theatre out there. Certainly, too much bad theatre. The ratio of bad plays to good plays is depressingly high. So odds are, when a friend asks you to see a show, it kind of sucks. You never go back. Can I blame you? Americans dread bad experiences more than we value good ones. So most people would rather see a movie that gets mediocre ratings than a play that gets decent ones. Less risk.
For this reason, I think it’s in our interest to be a lot harder on theatre-making. How many of your friends are working on a bad show right now? Why are we surprised when the audience is made up of mostly actors’ friends? Why do we profusely thank the audience for coming? Why does everyone compliment each other on a lackluster show? Enough with the pity party/circle jerk. Either try to blow the audience away, or don’t bother. Be harder on your friends. Save your glowing praise for work that deserves it. It’ll bolster quality overall, and theatre will gain credibility amongst the unwashed mashes, whose dollars we desperately need.