Open up and let them in, continued…

openI am an artist in process. We are an industry in process. I am of the opinion that our particular industry is in its entirety process, and nothing more. And I think I’m starting to get an inkling of what that word means.

My process thus far has gone something like this: discovered theatre at 20, fell in love with theatre, ran away from theatre, theatre hunted me down and forced itself on me, discovered that I was, and always had been, a theatre artist, clumsily mounted a string of theatrical events and, most recently, disappeared into the stunted, confused and beaten-down hound that is the business side of the independent arts. That last one has encompassed the last 3 years of my life, and I have lived it; eaten, breathed, touched, tasted it every single day. This has made me joyful, and it has made me furious, it has made me want to bury theatre in a shallow grave in the backyard and never give it another thought.

It has turned me into a preacher, the guy at the cocktail party that just won’t shut up, and it’s utterly taken my tongue and hidden it from me.

This, I realize now, is the process that all pioneers have gone through. I have sought out and wrapped myself in the voices of independent theatre practitioners and audiences – like a junkie with a farmers market of narcotics at his disposal – both in person and out here on the blogosphere. It’s moved from the background of my personality to the foreground, it has become an essential part of my identity. And the pursuit of answers, of method and of financial viability has – like all good art – cost me, as I know it has cost so many of my peers: time, money, sleep, relationship stress, sanity…and that light at the end of the tunnel is still just a pin prick.

But. Taking a breather right now I realize there are some things that I have come to know as Truth. Ideas that became experiments that became facts, forged in the fire of doing the thing and solidified in the forensics. These are chunks of bedrock that I believe we need to be open and loud about, that we need to share with each other so that we can strengthen our bonds as an industry, and as a community.

The Open Up and Let Them In concept – propounded in a post from early June – is one of those big chunks. Simply stated, it’s a shift in the indie theatrical model from putting up little basement-theatre versions of what the big proscenium-arched houses present – with little card table box offices and little Fisher Price mini-bars and redundant ushers – and instead embracing the opportunities presented us by our size and form – namely accessibility to the artists so that we can celebrate and debate the work together. Doing away with the curtain, as it were, instead of merely lifting it at 8:00. Fearing not the judgment of the punters but rather welcoming them as one half of the equation that makes up the performance. Face to face. Creating an experience that is unique unto itself, as similar to civic theatre as it is to Opera or a hockey game.

This idea has traction. Ottawa theatreist Kris Joseph recently writes:

…I am now more convinced than ever that theatre can and must distinguish itself from film, TV, and new media by being completely porous to its audience.

We owe it to audiences to share what we have learned through our practice; this is not an ‘education’ function but a core function.  We owe it to audiences to provide them with art that they want to see and that is relevant to them; this is not a ’subscription renewal’ or ‘programming’ function, but a core function.

See, inside the heart of all the discussion about why theatre is dying lies a rhythmic beat of “it’s not relevant.  It’s not relevant. It’s not relevant.”  We can all hear it, but the response to the drum-beat is generally wrong-headed because it revolves around a revival through increased ticket sales.  No: we need to revolve it around the body that owns the hand that’s banging the drum.

If this integration of art and audience can be achieved, the life-blood of the theatrical form and, yes, even the ‘funding’, will follow.

We can do this. Easily. It’s already so close to what we do already that to avoid it seems quite silly, actually. The magic of small-house theatre is in its connectivity, not its separation. Allow the audiences the ownership they crave and you will never get rid of them.

New Leaf Theatre in Chicago is inviting audiences into some rehearsals. Cambiare Productions in Austin live-streamed their last show to the world for free. Here in Vancouver, Twenty-Something Theatre Artistic Producer Sabrina Evertt blogs about her process openly and fearlessly. Touchstone Theatre is inviting us into the process of their next production, Demon Voice, by posting behind-the-scenes video blogs hosted by multi-Jessie Award winning playwright Shawn Macdonald. Here’s the first two in the series…

Short. Sweet. Inclusive. Generous. Open. We must share to butterfly. But not all of it.  Just enough to let them take ownership of us, not so much that we deprive them of the surprises that they come for.

How much are our audiences going to care about us? Pretty much exactly as much as we show we care about them.

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?

Accessibility.

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