Wednesday, December 1, 2010

All About Audience

It’s still Thanksgiving Day as I’m writing this, though just barely. I’ve got the last thirty-three minutes of Thanksgiving before me which means I’m just going to get this under the wire: Thank you for reading. Thank you for caring about theater, whether it’s because it’s your passion, or because you’re curious, or because you’re my friend and you’re the type of person who cares about what your friends care about. Thank you for giving me your time, and for the indulgence of your audience. It is an incredible gift. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about audience lately. I’m at the point with this show I’m producing – oh, wait, please hold. I’m sorry, I hate that I keep mentioning this show and still haven’t officially announced it to you guys. I’m just waiting until I get the application to Equity submitted before I start blowin’ that horn is all. Dotted I’s and crossed T’s and all that. Okay, where was I? Oh yes – I’m getting to the point where I’m wondering how the heck am I going to get people to this show? How am I going build an audience? Solving this problem all depends on marketing, of course, but before I start strategizing I feel compelled to consider what it even means to have an audience. What does having an audience do for a show? I mean, besides fill seats and create revenue – which is the economic relationship at play but can’t possibly be, to my way of thinking, an audience’s most essential function.

So what could that function be?  Well, I suppose it’s right there in the word audience, from the Latin audire, ‘to hear.’ The audience is there to hear you, to listen to what you have to say. And that’s another thing – the audience is actually there to hear you, as in right there in the very same room, changing the alchemy of all that happens with their presence. So they are there, and they are there to hear what you have to say. Which to my mind means: 1) You better acknowledge their presence somehow, and 2) You better have something to say.

That falls pretty in line with my own experience as an audience member. For example, nothing drives me crazier than a production that is too self-involved or too timid to reach out to where I’m sitting and connect with me. And this has nothing to do with direct address, broken fourth walls, or other types of meta-theatricality, and has everything to do with awareness and intention. Furthermore, while I’m not necessarily conscious of it, determining what a production might have to say is exactly how I decide what shows to see. When I scan reviews, read articles, listen to word of mouth, or peruse show postcards, I’m trying to size up what a play might be saying – about its subject, about the world, about theater – and if I I think I'd like to hear more, I buy a ticket.

Which leads me another piece of the puzzle that keeps coming to mind: you can’t beg an audience to come, or to listen. You can’t demand it of them. You can’t even really ask it of them. Whether it’s on stage in performance, or on the page in your marketing materials, if you beg, demand, or even ask, you’re putting the obligation on the audience to deliver. They have to acquiesce, they have to give over to you their presence and attention. And that can put an audience in a rather resentful frame of mind. However, if you invite an audience, if you welcome them, maybe even lure or entice them, then the burden is on the show to deliver. The show must then bear out its promise – or not – but either way the audience is obligation free. Which is a much lighter frame of mind, one in which an audience might feel downright generous with their presence and attention.

So I think that makes sense, but so what? What does this mean for my show? What does this mean for you? Well I’m not sure yet for the show, although I do feel a bit more grounded in how I want to speak to an audience in these coming months. As for what it means to you? Well you’re my audience here in this blog. And I hope I’ve made you feel acknowledged. I hope you feel that your presence, though virtual, is important to me. Because it is. Your presence is the very thing that drives me to discover what I have to say. Without the belief that you were listening, I wouldn’t dig as diligently or explore as deeply, and I certainly wouldn’t have as much fun. So once again, thank you. I am very grateful. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.

Oh and I haven't forgotten.  Reefer Madness and Wonder of the World are still coming your way.  This week!  A multiple post week!


  1. I love the part about refraining from making an audience feel obligated. It's a fine line, but an important one!

  2. A very fine line indeed. Especially amongst our generation who are so attuned to when they are being marketed to, and are, at the very least, neutral about it, and more likely skeptical or even annoyed. This makes it tempting to just be direct about things and skip marketing messaging altogether. But I suspect that actually does a diservice, and that will a little forethought, a more elegant strategy will present itself.