This episode started with a random conversation on Facebook in December of 2014. Three weeks later, on January 11, 2015, a forum on the crisis of audience building was held at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, Ontario. The organizers were Sheila Sky, a talent agent and the executive director of the Associated Designers of Canada, Derrick Chua a prolific theatre producer and Sue Edworthy a marketing and communications director. The audience was made up of artists, producers, board members, patrons, critics and creators, and the format was to pose questions that were collected and collated by Sue and Sheila to the audience and have those stakeholders try to come up with answers to the question of how to save the modern theatre audience.
This conversation will delight some, confound many, and anger others. There are no answers here, but there is the start of a much needed conversation about how we make theatre relevant in a world that is dominated by me-too stars of YouTube and entertainment-at-your-fingertips on Netflix. However, before you listen, I would like to add my two cents to the conversation first.
Most theatre artists in English Canada (and here I am ignorant of the amateur theatre scene in Quebec so I will not even try to characterize it) first engaged with live performance at the local amateur level. Be it in a stuttered, naive scene study in grade 10 drama, or a lavish musical theatre society production, most of us reveled in the thrill of stepping, painting, plugging, or barking for the first time in front of our peers and family in the community: and we could not get enough of it.
This theatrical movement in many communities is decades older than the modern professional theatre in Canada that I am trying to document here on The Title Block. This movement, which includes operetta groups and Sears Drama Festival retinues, is still a strong and vital part of many smaller communities, while us here in the big smoke of Toronto make have forgotten it. In North Bay or Nanaimo, community theatre not only attracts all ages and talents, but it sells; boy does it sell. Community theatre continues to sell and draw in volunteers and talent because the stakes are high and the thrill is palpable, for both the performer and the audience.
Professional theatre audiences have changed; I think we can agree on this. There is the dying breed of "blue hairs" as we dismiss them, callously. They are aging, and soon we will be left with a hole. "We need to attract the youth!" is the cry but no one, or most, have not a clue on how to do so. This forum will show that. But there is hope, and here is my proposition.
Today's 30 year old does not engage in entertainment passively. They want to be active participants. Maybe not in the original creation, but they tweet, post, blog, heckle, flame, praise, text, and all in a media cycle that pushes each of them further and further apart. There are fewer people attending church; it is a wonder that we make any connection at all given that there are more ways than we have ever thought of to "other" and push people away. More than anything, your 30-year old wants to be in a community. They want to feel a part of it. More importantly and specifically, they want to be in on the joke.
No one likes to be left out of the joke, even if they are the butt of it, everyone wants to have the inside skinny, the special treatment. YouTube, if it has done anything, it has sold us the idea that anyone can have a special talent and be popular; that stardom or fame is accessible. That may be fantasy, but that does not mean that your 30-year old stops wanting it: they even expect it.
Is this right? I have no idea, but this is the case, and we can take advantage of it while creating at the same time. There were several hints about this possibility in the forum. Some of successes spoken about in Disappearing Act are those that built an audience from scratch and have succeeded by building a community around their art. Some let the audience guide the choice of season, some create spaces in which the audience can interact with artists to share ideas and connect on a human level with the ideas presented in the play. Exit subscribers. Enter subsumers. Build community.
We cannot continue to remain a viable entertainment option, or heaven forfend a machine of change, if we continue to ignore the audience and see them as passive consumers let alone have contempt for them when they "don't get my art". Another common theme in the forum was "make good art!" and that is important, but we cannot "make good art" to serve our own egos, we have to do it for our audience, our conspirators: our community.
Until this forum, I thought that "boutique" theatre may be an answer. An exclusive and expensive, as well as an expansive, evening that used the art as a centre-piece, but that added extras in to make it special. Well, now I think that was naive: we have to use the art as a way of talking to one another, and let the poetic conversation bleed into the before- and after-time of the experience and blend with the prose of our audience. We need to create community.
Remember that thrill of stepping onstage for the first time? You thought that either you were going to pass out or persevere, but either way you were going to get the lines out in front or your friends and try to tell them why you love this so much. We need to keep that feeling inside of us when we create theatre. We have to stop being the weird cousin of Canadian culture and show our community that we matter, that art matters, and that theatre is not our own little, elite toy that the audience "can play with when we are done with it" but rather that it is how we tell our stories, and "won't you come along and tell me yours."
We need to build community. Our livelihood depends on it, and our audience is waiting.
Rant over, audio below.