Not All Audiences Are the Same

The following is a paper I wrote for my theories class during my graduate studies.  We were asked to write about our own theories of theatre using theorists we studied for that semester.  Since writing this paper, I often revisit it to tweak and alter since my theory has changed numerous times.  Hopefully you’ll enjoy…

Theatre as I see it should have a goal of reaching out to the audience to teach a lesson as well as entertain.  Theatre should be able and attempt to change lives, as it holds a mirror to society.  Teaching and entertaining needs to have a delicate balance, because too much teaching will bore the audience and too much spectacle for the sake of wowing the audience will have them walking away amazed, but their world has not changed.  Theatre is for all people from different backgrounds, good or bad.  In order to make it appeal to all people, there needs to be different styles and methods in which to execute such a potentially life changing art.  Its function should be to allow the audience to escape to a different world from their own and make them laugh, cry and question.  It is the duty of the theatre to provide entertainment and teaching through different genres of theatre, from mainstream musical theatre to classical to abstract and even types of theatre that don’t appeal to the general audience.  If the theatre were to pick one generic style of theatre, it would truly ensure the death of theatre itself.  Only one kind of audience would attend one generic style of theatre and what is the rest of the world to do for entertainment?  The theatre would lose its competition to the television, movies and video games.

The term “audience”, depending on the type of theatre that is presented, is a fairly vague term for such a venue that has the capability of reaching a wide vast of different people from all backgrounds. “Audience” tends to be generalized into one type of group.  When one picture an audience in your head, they imagine a large number of people packed in a theatre, waiting to be entertained by the event on stage.  The visionary’s version of that theatre could vary depending on the specific style of art, language, genre, or visual presentation.  There are shows that only appeal to children, such as educational performances, puppet shows, circus, and mainstream musicals such as the Disney On Broadway family; The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, just to name a few.    They provide entertainment and most of the time, may a large sum of money because of its wide audience appeal. Then there are performances that are only appropriate to be viewed by adults.  It may be because of complex language or a complex and unique structure that asks for something different from the audience.

The process of achieving this sort of goal in my vision of the theatre would include a variety of different plays, musicals and new works throughout the season.  The mainstream, commercialized, or “Disneyfied” theatre would build the budgets and increase them enough to be able to do the more classical and complex or abstract works that may appeal to a different audience.  By including classical theatre into the mixture, there is more opportunity to explore an older style of plays that would include the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Moliere, Thyestes, etc.  Producing Greek tragedies would bring theatre back to its roots.  The theatre I envision would be the familiar proscenium arch with a deep stage in order to accommodate different styles of sets.

The audience should be able to experience a different variety of feelings when it comes to watching a show.  In contemporary times, for many people, theatre has become a place to escape from the real world and to forget about one’s troubles for a few hours.  With popular musicals (or the “Disneyfied” shows), such as Wicked, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, etc. ending up with long term runs on Broadway as well as productions being put on all over the country and even the world.  These shows have an appeal to many people, especially families and young, aspiring, musical theatre performers.  Musicals such as these have a greater attraction to the general public.  Then there are the audiences who prefer the more challenging, complex and abstract plays from playwrights such as Suzan Lori-Parks, Samuel Beckett, and Caryl Churchill, just to name a few.  Plays by these artists have a specific message to tell and the way the message is presented utilizes tools to make the audience member view theatre in a different way than just conventional musicals, or the older style of classical theatre.

Beginning with the most popular and mainstream type of theatre; musical theatre, or as I would like to call it, “Disneyfied” theatre.  It is important to address the assumptions associated with this genre because these are feelings reflected from many artists and critics.  It is generalized as a genre that is popular with a wide audience and only in existence for purposes of making money. Bertolt Brecht describes the expectations of the audience in terms of the older style of opera, “It is true that the audience had certain desires which were easily satisfied by the old opera but are no longer taken into account by the new.  What is the audience’s attitude during an opera; and is there any chance that it will change? (Brecht 451). In the context of Brecht, the audience of the older opera time has been conditioned to enjoy a certain type of theatre filled with spectacle and seen as an event for the wealthy to show off their wealth.  In some cases, especially with Wicked, Mamma Mia and other popular shows, there are several productions occurring at once with one set, often rotating the same actors throughout the different productions, same costumes, music, lights, etc.

The criticisms associated with the genre include statements such as, “There isn’t any substance to this.”  The shows can be viewed as often surfaced and don’t hit any nerves deep within the audience’s mind.  There is no need to question what they are seeing on stage.  Shows such as these are focused on spectacle (music, sets, lights) and making money.  Theatre such as this is bounded to its standards and rules because that formula makes money.  Brecht goes on to say, “We have seen that opera is sold as evening entertainment, and that this puts definite bounds to all attempts to transform it.  We see that this entertainment has to be devoted to illusion, and must be of a ceremonial kind.  Why?  In our present society the old opera cannot be just ‘wished away.’  Its illusions have an important social function.  The drug is irreplaceable; it cannot be done without” (Brecht 452-453).  This quote is fascinating when it comes to the audience relationships to the theatre.

The second genre that is often under criticism is classical theatre.  It can still make a large sum of money due to the material being free domain and can be produced by theatres with a low budget.  Or in the opposite idea, theatres can be elaborate in their costumes and sets because they do not need to pay licensing rights to put on a production.  Depending on how the classical play is presenting, it can either appeal to a general audience or the play could be interpreted and produced into a piece with mature content and appeal to a specific audience.  Classical plays offer more flexibility to alter meaning and themes based on the artistic vision of the director.  This genre is generally stereotyped as theatre that only appeals to older people and those of higher intelligence.  What is wrongly assumed of classical theatre is that it is accused of being outdated.  For example, the language of Shakespeare has been adapted to hundreds of different versions altering time, space and even the genre of comedy and tragedy itself.  In the terms of Shakespeare, the Bard can be adapted to appeal to many different types of audience to the general family friendly style of theatre to the more mature content that requires a different audience for viewing.  Does this make Shakespeare the perfect playwright and the perfect style of theatre that could appeal to all different kinds of audiences?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  This is because there are audience members out there who will have the inability to comprehend Elizabethan English, whether it’s stemmed from early exposure to Shakespeare that proved too difficult to comprehend at the time, or the audience member will assume that they will be bored because it is “Shakespeare.”

There is also greater risk in producing work such as this because of the older language and if the director and actors do not have a good understanding of the text, the meaning can be lost and all efforts to show the work would be in vain.  The acting styles of the actors who participate in this genre of theatre are often challenged with different acting styles.  Edward Gordon Craig discusses the actor’s real role in the theatre, “Acting is not an art […] Art arrives only by design.  Therefore in order to make any work of art it is clear we may only work in those materials with which we can calculate.  Man is not one of these materials” (Craig 393).  The audience would be lost because if the actors don’t understand what they are saying, the audience will not understand either.  This may require a separation of emotion and physical being within the actor in order to communicate the play effectively.  If emotion took over the best of the actor, the text would most likely be lost.  Denis Diderot poses the question of the technique of acting that relies solely on emotion, “If the actor were overcome by feeling, how could he play the same part twice running with the same spirit and success?  Full of fire at the first performance, he would be worn out and cold as marble at the third” (Diderot 198).  The technique of the actor in all three of the genres will alter and change based on the material that they are working on.

The third genre that is presented is the more abstract kind of theatre.  This is theatre that may not follow the social norms or structure of creating a play.  It may include cross-gendered characters, non-linear plot, and complex language to comprehend.  This type of theatre could be stereotypically placed into the parameter that it is only meant for theatre people, scholars, critics, artists, etc.  This type of theatre could be meant to educate, and to hold a mirror (or a fun mirror in some cases) to society and show the audience the flaws of our world.  Abstract, new works, performance art, etc. challenges the audience to think critically at what they are viewing and the theatre has become more of an educational environment that wants the audience to walk away changed.  The acting styles of the actors who participate in this genre of theatre are often challenged with different acting styles.  The actor’s role in the theatre is not as tangible as a set design or a costume piece.  In terms of the different genres of the theatre, the actors are important in the communication of the story.  Craig believed in the separation of emotion and focusing on the movement of the actor to create consistency in the role.  Craig describes, “Do away with the actor, and you do away with the means by which a debased stage-realism is produced and flourishes.  No longer would there be a living figure in which the weakness and tremors of the flesh were perceptible” (Craig 396).  Outsiders can also view this style of theatre as self-indulgent pieces of work that closes the audience off from the artist who is creating.  Diderot talks about the differences between art for the self and art for the audience,

“Is it at the moment when you have just lost your friend or your mistress that you will begin composing a poem on her death?  No!  woe to him who at such a moment delights in his talent.  It is when the storm of sorrow is over, when the extreme of sensibility is dulled, when the event is far behind us, when the soul is cal, that one remembers one’s eclipsed happiness, that one is capable of appreciating one’s loss…”(Diderot 201).

What Diderot means by this statement is that the artist should be human and feel the feelings of loss, hurt and grief.  It is only after the process is over is when the artist can objectively create art.

A Dramatic Conversation Between the Three Genres: A Short Play by Alex Matsuo

MICKEY:  People will pay big money to see my shows!

WILL:  Yes, but will the audience learn anything from seeing your performances?  With all your glitter, light, smoke and mirrors?  They will be taken away to a different world that will teach nothing but how to reflect lights and make people fly around.

 MICKEY:  But I make people feel good! I take them away from their rough workdays and I keep the kids quiet for three hours.  It’s like having a baby sitter and the parents are sitting right next to their child.

FOUNDLING FATHER:  Both of you are wrong!  I present the audience with unique and different theatrical circumstances that are separate from the social norm.  I ask the audience to think about what they are seeing on stage.  I am challenging their intellectual minds and I have a message to send and a story to tell.

 MICKEY:  But can you take a ten-year-old child to a Churchill play?

 FOUNDLING FATHER:  Well, I suppose you will have to leave the kids at home.  But think of the knowledge that these people will embark –

WILL:  I may have a difficult language to understand, but if the actor is a good actor, then there is no problem of comprehension.  William Shakespeare is being taught to children at a younger age all the time and they seem to understand the storyline.

MICKEY:  My style of theatre doesn’t take much intelligence to be enjoyed.  The audience doesn’t need to be asked to think about what they are seeing on stage.  Especially the young people.  After dealing with school and work all day, the last thing they want is to be lectured about some tragic flaws about themselves.

FOUNDLING FATHER:  And that’s why you make so much money.

MICKEY:  Exactly!

WILL:  And your money helps pay for our theatre.

FOUNDLING FATHER:  Using other people’s money to fund my visions?  I like that.

MICKEY:  And I suppose you bring in other types of people who might see my theatre as shallow and mundane with flashy lights.

WILL:  I suppose, in some complex way…we all need each other in some sort.

 FOUNDLING FATHER:  But wait, there is another type of theatre we didn’t include in this conversation.  They’re a bit more risqué and violent so to speak.

WILL:  Ah…I know of whom you are talking about.  Should we even invite them to this conversation?

Fin.

There is the type of theatrical performance that many do not see as theatre.  This is the question and argument that I present to you, the reader.  There is a style of performance where the viewers pay for a ticket, and they sit in an audience.  The stage has a curtain, props, lighting, and blocking.  But the content of this show is controversial.  There are a few controversial styles of performance where onlookers can say that this genre or style is not theatre.  The styles include live sex shows, strippers and even animal slaughter.  An Elizabethan form of entertainment, called bear baiting, was often a popular bloody event at the Globe theatre that occurred when Shakespeare’s plays were not running.  A bear would be chained and tied down while a pack of dogs were released and the entertainment of the event would be to see who would survive.  Bears would sometimes survive and go on to participate in bear-baiting several more times in their lives.  The practice is even mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Slender: […] Why do your
dogs bark so? be there bears i’ the town?

Anne Page: I think there are, sir; I heard them talked of.

Slender:  I love the sport well but I shall as soon quarrel at
it as any man in England. You are afraid, if you see
the bear loose, are you not?

Anne Page:  Ay, indeed, sir.

Slender:  That’s meat and drink to me, now. I have seen
Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him by
the chain; but, I warrant you, the women have so
cried and shrieked at it, that it passed: but women,
indeed, cannot abide ’em; they are very ill-favored
rough things. –Act I, Scene I

Events such as these at first glance would not be classified as theatre.  But unfortunately for most, there will be a person out there who will find meaning in animal sacrifice being portrayed on stage.  Whether to classify any of these styles as theatre is a topic that many will be ready to argue.  The type of audience that these events attract are stereotypically individuals who are in the lowest class of people.  But there are people of higher class that get some sort of meaning from presentations such as these.  The technology of theatre (sets, lights, props, and costumes) is utilized to create a presentation.  After careful thought, would the current reader think that this is theatre?

Realistically speaking, plays such as these would not be filling houses of the thousands, depending on the playwright and who is starring in the play would also affect ticket sales, but in the realistic world of community and regional theatres, these works would not be paying for the season’s budget.  Between these three genres that I have discussed, although they are all different, in the end they all need each other.  The “Disneyfied” theatre will bring in the money and build the budgets necessary to do the classical and abstract pieces.  These three genres need each other in order for the other to survive.  The “Disneyfied” theatre could quite possibly spark the interest of theatre to a young audience member.  Inspiration has to come from somewhere and starting small would be the best way to weed out those who do only enjoy the surfaced productions with the smoke and mirrors.

When it comes to the question of meaning, in retrospective there will be fans of each genre ready to criticize the other two for having pointless life spans on stage.  But what needs to be understood is that there is not one universal style of theatre that will appeal to every person who goes to the theatre.  The job of the theatre is to entertain, educate, and make the audience question and criticize.  But there are audience members who might only want to be entertained.  And there may be scholars who want to visit the theatre solely on the purpose of being intellectually challenged.  To sum this theory up into a single sentence, not all audiences are the same.  There needs to be a wide variety of theatre out there in existence in order to keep theatre alive and thriving.

Works Cited

Brecht, Bertolt. “The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre.” Theatre, Theory, Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. By Daniel Charles Gerould. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2000. 446-53. Print.

Craig, Edward Gordon. “The Actor and the Übermarionette.” Theatre, Theory, Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. By Daniel Charles Gerould. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2000. 393-98. Print.

Diderot, Denis. “Conversations on The Natural Son & The Paradox of Acting.” Theatre, Theory, Theatre: The Major Critical Texts from Aristotle and Zeami to Soyinka and Havel. By Daniel Charles Gerould. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2000. 191-201. Print.

Fisher, James. “The Eugene O’Neill Newsletter.” EOneill.com: An Electronic Eugene O’Neill Archive. Web. 01 Dec. 2010. <http://www.eoneill.com/library/newsletter/x-1/x-1f.htm&gt;.

Lebowitz, Naomi. “Steven’s PAISANT CHRONICLE.” Explicator 61.3 (2003): 160. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Dec. 2010.

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