I got myself into a spirited debate the other day. Nadine is an ensemble member in my company who works with us here in Vancouver but actually lives in New York, and she’s great to debate with because she has an East Coast defiance and a stubborness that rivals my own, so she can toss the West Coast demure out the window and force you to either strengthen and articulate your argument or acquiesce to her opinions. The topic of this debate was play selection and how it serves to build audience.
Nadine had played the role of Abby in a run of Labute’s The Mercy Seat that I helped produce here a couple of years ago, and she was mentioning how much she’d love to take another crack at it in Vancouver at some point, incorporating the new insight into the role she’d acquired since doing it the first time. I said yeah, sure, but maybe you should do it in New York, since it’s set in Manhattan and concerns 9-11. She said yes, but (and I paraphrase here), that’s merely the backdrop, and the themes of the play deal with infidelity and the nature of responsibility within relationships, which are universal and as such equally resonant to all audiences, regardless of place. And besides, says she (and here I do not paraphrase), it’s a great fuckin’ play. Yes, says I, but is it great enough to make theatre-neophyte Vancouverites want more?
My POV in this matter is rooted in a theory that I’ve been kicking around, which is loosely stated as: in order to increase the chances of a new audience returning once you’ve finally got them in the stalls, we should hew towards serving up new work that is about them, as in; their time and their place. This is related to another theory that I’m working out, which is that ‘theatre cities’ become such because at some point there is a huge issuing forth of new plays produced about that city, facilitated by a reaction from the population taking an unprecedented interest in said theatre because it reflects them as a community. I have no hard data for this, I just know at some point in years past a lot of great theatre was made about, say, New York, featuring characters speaking in New York dialects and referencing New York-y things, and as a consequence so many New Yorkers went to see them and talked about them that we still do them in acting class in Vancouver in 2008. New York is a theatre city. Vancouver is not. Can I change that? I have no idea, but I’d like to, so I could use all the help I can get.
So, the question I put to all of you is this: hypothetically, and all things being equal in regards to quality of production, if the same virgin Vancouver audience is given two plays; one a popular established play that has performed well in its community of origin where it also happens to be set (and acquired a resultant industry buzz), or a new work that is set here in Vancouver, will the setting have any influence on its overall affect and popularity with said audience? Put another way: does art proliferate when it can be claimed by its community?
I think a key to this line of questioning is to look at our work from the POV of the potential audience member that we need to convert, the one who is not an artist but has a latent interest in the arts. How do they want to be treated by their local artists? Would they prefer to see plays set in other cities and other cultures, or do they want us to address their issues with references to their city and in their own vernacular? What’s the best way to make theatre a sticky art form?