The Art or The Audience

Thirty years ago, I was peeking through the theatre curtain, watching FST’s production of Sam Shepard’s play True West. We had mounted a truly fine production of this remarkable new play, and audiences were thrilled with it. However, as I peered through the curtain I saw a young couple in their thirties sitting in the second row, who were clearly disengaged. I could not, for the life of me, understand why a young, bright couple could feel detached from such a smart, hip play. After the performance, I spoke with these individuals, and they said, quite simply, “I just didn’t get it.”

That encounter began for me a journey of attempting to better understand the audience. It was the beginning of a journey to identify what people “get,” and what they “don’t get.” What do people understand and not understand? And why? It highlighted a new and deeply personal moment of reckoning for me – I didn’t understand the audience. It became clear to me that after years of formal training, and decades of professional experience, I possessed an excellent understanding of the “Art of Theatre,” but I was clearly lacking in a deeper knowledge of the audience.

That was thirty years ago. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful journey. It was the beginning of a journey to merge the art with the audience, to truly create theatre that “holds a mirror as it were to nature.”

Making theatre “accessible” is a much bigger job than I previously thought. Not only is it about building wheelchair ramps, but it also goes to the core of what the word accessibility means. It means making the theatre accessible in thought – accessible to different people, to different core cultures, to different generations, and to diverse populations. That young couple in the theatre thirty years ago led me to the understanding that “we may be seeing the same play, but we all see it differently.”

That’s why the “majority” of the audience may love our production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, but there are a handful out there who just “won’t get it.” And please understand, one is not more right than the other. We all have a different core cultural lens through which we see the world. And that culture colors our views of the events we witness.

When I first heard of Straight White Men, I must admit I was suspicious that the play would be another male bashing polemic. But when I saw the play, not only was I relieved, I was enlightened to find that the play gently, humorously, and warmly placed us all into the same human soup together. Yes, the straight white male was privileged, but privilege did not equate to responsibility. Indeed, some of the most powerful, most responsible people in my life have been “Others” who simply act responsibly, and in their actions they found their power. There is something very basic about this play, suggesting that it is our responsibility – each and every one of us – to help: to be a part of, to embrace the other, and to come together. No matter how different we are.

This reminds me of another experience I had several years ago. FST was producing The Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson, and there is a scene when two men kiss. A close friend of mine, a straight white male, told me that the scene with the men kissing made him very uncomfortable. Before I could respond, he went on to say, that it was an important moment for him. He tried to understand why it made him uncomfortable. In summary, he didn’t blame the action. Rather, he looked deeply into himself to better understand his own response. Why was he uncomfortable? And what in him led him to those feelings?
I thought this was a really enlightened point of view. This audience member was looking to himself, to his own response, to better understand the “other.”

The joy of theatre, for me, is that it is a forum. The theatre is a place for people to come together and test their values. I think that’s why we still say, “I’m going to the theatre to see a ‘play.'” Because just like little puppies and little children love to “play” to grow their life skills, we adults attend a “play” to continue to sharpen our skills. To play is very serious. It is the serious art of engagement where we sharpen our skills at living and learning.

The two people who didn’t understand our play (True West all those years ago) are part of the public I respect. They are the crowd. And the crowd has wisdom. Ultimately, the wisdom of the crowd provides pretty good guidance. At Florida Studio Theatre, we want substance, and we want investigation, in our plays. We also want to challenge with as much gusto as we entertain.

In our contemporary world of sound bites and political positioning, it seems more important than ever for the theatre to provide an entertaining and challenging exchange of views on the issues of our day. The politicians are not allowed to do it, or if they do they are accused of “vacillating.” We seem to like our politics clear, decisive, and rigid. (Heaven forbid two politicians should have a deep discussion and one of them changes their view! Or worse: they compromise.)

That’s why I like to refer to FST as Sarasota’s Contemporary Theatre. We like to wrestle with the issues of the day. We respect the inherent impact of the story – the tale that will provide a deep and complex communal experience, touching both our minds and our hearts. A theatre that provides a visceral, profound experience that will help us “to see.” Indeed, when we speak to “the many,” when we are playing to “the other,” when we are seeking “the diverse,” we are ultimately accessible to all.

And at FST, we believe diversity of thought leads to diversity of audiences. And our subscription audience is the largest in the state of Florida, perhaps proving that diversity leads to accessibility, and accessibility leads to vibrant, visceral theatre. And that great theatre begets great audiences. And great audiences beget great theatre.

Ask that couple from 30 years ago about the audience…ask them if they find more meaning in their lives because of FST. They’re still subscribing. And their answer is, “Yes, FST tells me what it means to be alive.” In fact, if you’re reading this, you may just be that couple. Or someone like them. And you probably know exactly what I’m saying.

So, enjoy this Season of diversity and accessibility on all of our stages!

And keep talking back. It’s a good dialogue.