Open up and let them in

door open

Do you know why theatre rocks?

Of course you do, you’ve found your way to a theatre blog on the overwhelmingly crowded internet. Whatever that answer is to you is the greatest marketing tool you’ve got. All you’ve got to do is spread that reason all over town.

Why do I think theatre rocks?


We’re accessible by nature. Our art is drenched in the image of accessibility. It is, in fact, the single most accessible art form. That is its great strength. Out of all the art out there, we let our audience into the thing, invite them to be part of the thing. This is, I’m becoming more and more convinced every day, the greatest weapon in our marketing arsenal. I believe we must nurture this image, encourage it, let it become the product. We, consumers that we are, want to connect directly to that which moves us, to the things and experiences that elicit an emotional reaction. It’s why our society worships at the church of Celebrity, and movie stars feel compelled to invent fake names to stay at hotels. Kooks included, we want to express ourselves to our artists, to connect to their art directly, to say thank you. And within the theatre they’re right there in our midst. Fortunately, independent theatre doesn’t attract the kooky stalker set. Yet.

During the run of our last production I hosted a small reception for the audience every night, to which they were always invited. I set out a table of cheese and deli meat and crackers, veggies, that kind of thing (I love you, Costco), and tended a full bar. The company had agreed going in that they would make themselves available to their audience for a certain amount of time post show, and to my neverending amazement and wonder, all 12 of them did. Every night. Shook hands and answered questions and had drinks bought for them…we were all humbled and amazed by it. And our audiences seemed to be too. It gave them all shared ownership of the experience, and it was absolutely stunning to watch.

All participants, together in a room, celebrating the event. This is what theatre offers. This is why it rocks.

I’ve seen other examples of this philosophy lately that’s made my heart jump. Consider this post from the blog of the ever-inspiring Chicago-based New Leaf Theatre. It details their decision to continue the rehearsal process for a play they had developed as a company after opening and invite the public in to watch.

We started rehearsals, as we always do, with the ensemble performing their opening ritual – a simple exercise in a circle. We revisited one of the building blocks we’d used over the course of rehearsals when Jess led the group in a Viewpoints exercise. (Some of the audience had never seen or heard of Viewpoints before, and they were kind of amazed.) About half of the audience hadn’t seen the full production yet, but since the story is so episodic, we decided that didn’t matter. We chose two scenes to focus on, and ran them with lights and sound to give our newbies a reference point. And then we got to work.

We picked apart moments, cleared up some traffic patterns, strengthened some choices, made some new discoveries. We made actual changes to blocking, to interpretation, and those changes showed up on Friday and Saturday nights.

We invited the audience to join us in our closing exercise, and they all did.

This is utterly mind-blowing to me. The generosity and fearlessness and inclusivity to their community of this idea is brilliant, what better way to make your audience, or potential audience, feel like a part of the company, to feel invested in your future? Note that they kept the process closed during the development of the piece, inviting civilians into the early process of creation would be a fly in the ointment, no doubt. But the show was up and running, it was deemed a saleable product, and they were allowing witnesses into the maintenance of the piece. It was an honest declaration of the opinion that theatre is always in process. Lovely.

And how’s this for theatre nerd porn? The New York Times ran a behind-the-scenes piece on Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests, which includes slide shows and short audio clips from all aspects of the production, from actors to props master to costumer to carpenter to usher to audience members…how cool and compelling and easy is this to put together?

This is one of the ideas that inspired me to buy a Flip Camera. And, I suppose, it’s this idea that compels us to blog. I believe this is how we need to brand ourselves: as the accessible emotional experience. It’s going to require some ego-killing, but it could pave the way to making Independent Stage the most talked about experience in town.

What do you think? Can we trade in the old tropes of ‘theatre magic’ for a new paradigm of honest human communion?

Image courtesty of Flickr user joewhk


  1. Hi there,

    Bringing this post to the TCG conference today as an example of the “Revolution” part of our Press Summit’s “Roots, Renewal, Revolution” discussion.

    I’ll let you know how it goes.

  2. Great post!

    I am in total agreement with your central claim. Essentially, theatre is a shared experience of beauty and upon that unique experience a community can and should be nurtured. We must, as you suggest, expand our sense of how and when and where we let the “audience” be a part of the experience. The more we share with them, the more they will share with us.

    As your own experiments demonstrate, it doesn’t take too much effort to get great results. I also think New Leaf’s approach is fantastic. It would also be a great way to engage and mentor youth.

    The performance isn’t the product or even the goal of theatre; it is the excuse to build a community. If we keep this essential insight in mind as we move forward, if we allow it to shape and guide our practices, I think we are much more likely to create a profitable and sustainable community.

  3. Wow. Thanks Wendy. Please do let me know how that goes. Wish I could be there.

    “The performance isn’t the product or even the goal of theatre; it is the excuse to build a community.”

    Right on, Sterling.

  4. My great grandfather used to tell me that theatre is like the soccer of the art world; All you need to make a play is a ball and some players. Or something like that.

  5. I hope so. I think that honest connection and communication is what we have that no recession or budget restriction can take away. It is indestructible. It is truly magic once you experience it, and have that ‘Oh THIS is theatre moment.

    Watching the Tony’s last night really confirmed, in a heart breaking way, how Theatre (with a capital T) has lost the plot on theatrical magic.

  6. What happened with the Tonys? A bunch of people on twitter were echoing that sentiment, but I was at work and didn’t see it.

  7. It was just very mechanical. The musicals were all void of passion and art (in my subjective opinion). They showed roughly 10 seconds each of the straight plays; they might as well not have shown anything. I just remember feeling so connected to theatre watching the Tony’s as a teen.

    Now granted, that may have just been my perspective way back when, who knows how I’d see the same shows today. I just really wanted to enjoy the show and didn’t.

  8. If they can show musicals that no longer play on Broadway, why can’t they show plays that closed before the Spring?

    Yeah, I know. But it would have been lovely to have seen MARY STUART for a bit.

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