Reflections on the #audTO Forum, or, Grumpy Uncle Alexander is Grumpy (edited below)

On January 11th, a forum on the “Disappearing Act” of Torontonian audiences (this post will, like so many others, be a tad Toronto-centric, I’m afraid) in the theatre world played out in the belly of Passe Muraille’s Mainspace. Hosted by producer Derek Chua, producer and arts-marketing expert Sue Edworthy, and Shelia Skye, executive director of the Associated Designers of Canada, the forum was (fortunately for me, since I was not able to attend) recorded and posted on the Title Block podcast. If you haven’t listened to it yet, I encourage you to do so; I will endeavor to calibrate my ensuing thoughts such that you hopefully won’t need to have heard the podcast in order to understand them, but it is a worthwhile listen regardless (as is the back-catalogue of the podcast, available at the website and on iTunes).

The premise of the afternoon’s discussion was this: there are many shows in Toronto in various different kinds of theatres, some of them quite good, and they are, generally speaking, under-attended. There are fewer audiences members overall than there used to be. Audiences are “shrinking.”

The event consisted of four-ish umbrella categories of questions which were put to the crowd for answers, challenges, solutions, commentary, and the occasional bout of free-association. I’m going to deal with things more-or-less in chronological order, but there is one guiding principal or question which necessarily informs all of my discussion of this, which is – what do we actually know?

Not, “What do we think we know?” Or, “What have I personally seen?” Or, “What is my general feeling about things given my own experiences?” But, What. Are. The. Facts?

To start with, I think it’s worth interrogating the premise under discussion: do we actually know that audiences are shrinking? By which I mean – are there fewer and fewer people attending theatre performances, irrespective of the number of shows or performances? Is the total audience pool actually smaller? At one point in the forum, it was suggested by a speaker that subscribers keep returning “year after year.” The speaker was corrected on this point by one of the two moderators (I’m not sure which, as I don’t know either well enough to identify by voice) and was informed that the “facts” were exactly otherwise. But this is an ambiguous point – are there fewer audience members, or fewer subscribers? One does not imply the other, and it is entirely possible that theatre-goers have lost faith in institutions to program a season, but have increased (or maintained) their interest in individual artists, projects, or small companies. I have asked Ms. Edworthy clarification on this point, and will amend this post when she gets back to me.

But first things first. There were a few underlying assumptions to much of the forum that I have heard parroted over and over in the theatre community both here and elsewhere. Like quite a lot of “conventional wisdom,” they are the kinds of things sound utterly irrefutable on the surface, before you think about them for longer than twenty seconds. If we as a community are going to get anywhere in addressing problems with audience cultivation and theatre’s overall viability, we need to cure ourselves of these superstitions.

 

1. Different types of media do not compete with each other.

Or, they do, but not in the way that we’re used to thinking.

How’s this for a drinking game: get a bunch of theatre geeks together, turn on a discussion of theatre in Canada (the round-table at NTS, for example, or the #audTO podcast), and each time someone uses a variation of the question, “How do we get people to come to the theatre instead of staying home to watch Netflix?” everyone takes a shot.

Because make no mistake, that is, by and large, how theatre artists are choosing – yes, choosing – to define and categorize their art: as that which must, of necessity, offer itself as a direct alternative to Netflix, movies, &c. (which will hereafter be referred to by the shorthand “television,” because that’s basically what it is). But this makes no sense – and we don’t do it with any other kind of media. Who would make the argument that CBC radio programming “competes” with the corporation’s television offerings? How does the success of Q or The Current have anything to do with the failure of Cracked or Arctic Air? The obvious answer is that they don’t; the ways in which people consume radio media – as well as value they expect to get from it – are just fundamentally different.

For a comparison to be valid, we must surely compare like things, and the theatre just isn’t like television. And to be clear, this has nothing to do with vague and unserious talk about theatre’s supposed “stuffiness” and TV’s supposed “coolness” or “fastness.”  For one thing, TV works differently physiologically on the human brain. The editing techniques of film and TV work to exploit the brain’s natural inclination to process information in manageable “chunks,” such that narratives are able to be told with sufficient visual, auditory, and emotional stimulation that prevents us from becoming bored. As one study noted:

 We know that the brain “chunks” information into manageable pieces, and when it feels a “chunk” of the storyline has been told, it will go into shutdown [sic] for a second or so while it processes the information it has received. This is known as “conceptual closure”

 This is why a J.J. Abrams movie is more exciting, more compulsively watchable, than a Bela Tarr film.  Another study, conducted by researchers at New York University, found that the viewer’s cortex is more highly engaged when movies use “highly controlled” editing techniques. As Rachel Nuwer writes in The Credits:

 …highly controlled films, in turn, exert a higher level of control on viewers’ minds than unstructured clips that are closer to our day-to-day experiences of reality. When Hitchcock directs our gaze to a bloody knife or an open door, we all look together. In real life, however, our attention is diverted, focusing at will on the guy with the newspaper, the woman wrestling with her shopping bags or the wind in the trees, with little rhyme or reason.

 The key words in that paragraph are “at will.” In other words, the conventions of film editing diminish the actual, physical amount of work or effort required of the viewer to apprehend the film (or TV show, movie, whatever). This is something that no work of theatre – not even the freneticism of VideoCab – can ever hope to achieve or accomplish. The actual form of theatre is so fundamentally different, and the methods of delivery so totally at odds, that to ask “Why theatre and not Netflix?” is something like asking “Why sushi and not steak?”

We can all name theatre companies which are clearly trying to resolve this tension by making theatre “more like” television – in pace, aesthetic, style, &c. But like trying to make sushi more like steak, this project strikes me as doomed to fail – sushi and steak are just different, and depending on the culture, tastes, class, geography, and social luck of the diner, they are going to prefer one or the other, if not always, certainly at particular times.

Theatre cannot be “entertaining” in the same way that TV can be “entertaining.” By which I mean, theatre can never offer the same emotional, visual, intellectual, and auditory stimulation as TV without demanding a higher price in terms of work or effort on the part of the viewer. The moment we begin comparing Netflix to the theatre as if they were like terms, we make the implicit claim that theatre can do things it simply can’t do; but more than that, we distract ourselves from making the case that there are innumerable things that theatre can do that film and TV never can. Immediacy, spontaneity, flesh-and-blood community, uniqueness of forms, non-literal expressions of ideas and feelings – these are things that theatre by its very nature does better than TV.

So the real question we should be asking is not, “How can theatre compete with Netflix, TV and movies?” but how can we better articulate what makes theatre special and worthwhile in and of itself.

Which brings me to point number two.

 

 2. Theatre is made for “theatre people.” And that’s okay.

I have remarked often that the theatre community tends to be very closed and self-referential, and just generally appeals to itself. The question, “How can we attract non-theatre people to the theatre?” is perhaps a natural corollary to this acknowledgement, and admittedly, I may have in fact invited it myself. But now I’m not so sure.

We seem to be dealing in tautologies and circular arguments. If the only definition of a theatre person is, “one who goes to the theatre,” it makes little sense to complain that we make theatre for such people. (By little, I mean none).

Again, theatre is not TV. It requires effort to apprehend and appreciate – and that isn’t symptomatic of particular failures in our theatrical aesthetics, it is, q.v. point number one, essential to the form itself. A better analogy is not between theatre and TV, but between theatre and, say, serious literary fiction.

There is nothing at all wrong with enjoying a Stephen King novel once in a while. His stuff is accessible, easy-to-read, compelling, not very hard. It’s fun, in other words. But even though it takes the same skillset (ie., literacy) to read The Stand and Infinite Jest, the vast majority of Stephen King fans would likely find the latter difficult and weird, and for that reason, probably boring. And they’re right – it is difficult and weird.

But nobody would ever suggest that the way to make more people read books is to make the books dumber and easier to read.  So why are we asking that of the theatre? It isn’t elitism to simply acknowledge that some theatrical works only appeal to people who know something about theatre, enjoy the peculiarities of the form, and understand its semiology. And it isn’t elitism – or even, really, “self-indulgent” – to make theatre for “theatre people.” Lydia Davis does not write stories for the hordes of Twilight fans; she writes for people who like and understand literary fiction, and who know how to appreciate its quirks.

So of course theatre is made for “theatre people.” That, surely, is as it should be. We might ask how we can create more “theatre people,” but we need to be careful not to confuse “creating more theatre people” with “creating dumber, and more ‘accessible’ theatre.” I get uncomfortable when artists begin to casually throw around phrases like, “a good night out,” or who treat of the word “boring” with hostility that verges on the neurotic.

After all, I’ve written in defense of “boring” theatre before. We need to caution ourselves that what we think of as “boring” or “pretentious” might just difficult or different or belonging to other tastes. A production’s lack of popular appeal is not necessarily indicative of its being too aloof or cerebral for the audience (it should be noted here, that a lack of popular appeal is not the same as a lack of popularity; some theatre productions are hugely popular among “theatre people” which could be totally alienating to an audience member unversed in the form – that’s what education means).

Which must certainly bring me to,

 

 3. People don’t avoid the theatre because it’s “bad,” and they don’t go because it’s “good.”

Unlike the other two, this point seems to me utterly self-evident. It was repeated multiple times, by multiple of the forum’s participants, that some key element to accruing audiences must be, “make good art.” But if the history of popular taste has taught us anything, it is that a work of art’s relative “good-ness” has virtually nothing to do with its popularity. Sure, some great artists have been intensely popular in their own times, and remain so today – plenty others died in obscurity only to achieve a kind of lasting fame and popularity many years later; many, many others achieved peaks of fame in during their lifetimes only to be forgotten by history altogether.

If popularity were a measure of quality, the greatest work of the theatre would probably be Mamma Mia or Rock of Ages. If popularity were a measure of quality, J.K. Rowling would be the greatest author history has ever known (she’s dreadful). If popularity were a measure of quality, for god’s sake – Nickelback would be a superior musical act than Elliott Smith.

I can’t imagine that any of the people making this ludicrous claim actually believe any of this, or have thought about its implications.  And while I do agree with Melanie Hrymak that an artist looking to put on a production of, say, Hamlet, must ask why they’re doing the show beyond the opportunity to play  a famous role, this does not strike at the heart of my gripe with the “do good theatre” directive.  And nobody, as far as I know, sets out to do bad theatre – but even this is not the point.

The point is that there is no evidence whatsoever which suggests that a lack of quality is the major deterrent for audience members. The anecdotal evidence of CBC’s Ontario Today call-ins notwithstanding, the research conducted by the Toronto Association for the Performing Arts, available to anyone with access to the Internet and a clue, clearly indicates that cost is the primary deterrent for potential audience members.

Q.v., for instance, two of the crucial Key Findings:

 Concerns about cost are [sic] a key barrier to attendance. Continued messaging about the affordability of the arts is vital in order to reach those with concerns over spending

 

The audience is divided into two broad groups by income and, to a lesser extent, age. Those with high household incomes make up a large proportion of TAPA audiences and this group tend to be older and without the time and financial constraints of younger audiences.

 

The report goes on to observe that “the audience is also largely without children 18 years of age or under” (children are expensive), “audiences average annual incomes well over the average for the city,” and “42% [!] of audiences report an annual household income of over $100 000.” TAPA audiences are also disproportionately hyper-educated – 79% have an undergraduate degree compared to only 29% of adult Torontonians.

What this tells us very clearly is that the two primary reasons audiences do not attend the theatre are: a lack of education, and soaring costs. This is in keeping with research conducted in the UK and elsewhere. Declining audiences has nothing at all to do with the fact that young people want to Tweet during shows and everything to do with the fact that most people can’t afford to pay $30, $50, $60 on anything like a regular basis (if at all). And sure, theatres have discounted or rush tickets – for some of their shows, some of the time – but it is asking rather a lot that a working person be prepared to risk two  hours of their night to line up for rushes they may not, in the end, actually get.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge theatres charging this much for tickets (with the exception of indie theatre, which really guys, we’re all broke, can we put a cap on $15 tickets? I mean at least if we’re not paying people a living wage anyway?); I know perfectly well that ticket sales even at their most expensive don’t come anywhere close to covering the costs of a show or a season.

No, these are clearly political problems and they require political solutions. Canadian artists gripe about funding cuts to the arts on an almost hourly basis, yet how many of us could be arsed to volunteer for our MP’s campaign in the last election? How many of us hand out leaflets or go and do outreach or actually do the work of articulating to voters why arts funding is important? How many of we anti-Harperites did anything at all in the last election beyond simply voting for the NDP candidate in our lefty-downtown Toronto riding that they were going to win anyway?

And if we all agree that arts education is so poor these days, why aren’t we paying attention to elections to key positions in the TDSB? How many of us even knew the names of the candidates for these positions, let alone what they stood for?

If I seem emphatic, it’s only because too often our reaction to shrinking audiences for sophisticated or challenging art seems to be aesthetic: “How can we make it more fun, faster, feel more like a party with friends and less like – the theatre?” In addition to generally impoverishing the work, this attitude shelters us from the very real responsibility we as artists need to take for our political process, to actually do the work of changing a political and cultural landscape that is largely hostile to artists.

So what can we do keep audiences from shrinking? The same thing we can do to keep our governments from poisoning our planet and a butchering poor people on foreign soil: wake up, and be fucking citizens.

 

Edit: (Ms. Edworthy contacted me via Twitter and confirmed that it is, in fact, total audiences that are shrinking and not subscribers. So that’s depressing.)

3 Comments Reflections on the #audTO Forum, or, Grumpy Uncle Alexander is Grumpy (edited below)

  1. David Fisher

    In my experience, when people are making the “How can we attract non-theatre people to the theatre?” argument, quite often the definition of theatre, at least in Toronto, is “People who make theatre”.
    I often go and see shows and recognize at least 50% of the audience because they work in the industry. I have heard people refer to the Summerworks festival as “the Toronto theatre conference” because it often seems like 90% of the audiences are people who make theatre.
    Of course, this is not true across the board. There are many examples of companies that have a non-exclusively theatre-practitioner audience: Stratford, Mirvish, Soulpepper, Tarragon, to name a few. However, in my experience, those audiences have a median age of 65 or 70. Which is perhaps why it seems like audiences are dying out.

    Reply
  2. Mark Brownell

    Hi Alex,

    IMO, the reason audiences are shrinking is because the boomers are dying off. The boomers are the last primary generation of theatre goers. Being empty nesters they have money to spend on theatre and they actually go to it as a social event. (See Soulpepper matinee.) In general, theatre prospers when there is a healthy/educated middle class. We currently don’t have that so the performing arts is pushed into the margins of either the incredibly rich (ballet, opera) or the incredibly poor (fringe etc).

    I never bought the argument that other media stole the theatre’s audience. As you say, it is two entirely different experiences. Conceptually, Brecht thought that theatre should never try to compete with other media because it will lose every time. I am inclined to agree with the old thief on that one. I am not a fan of theatre that is tarted up with the latest e-crap gadgetry. (See Helen Lawrence.)

    The ticket price thing is also a canard. Look how much people pay for a single Leafs ticket. A truly crappy experience and yet the stands are still stuffed with suckers. There is an art to setting the right ticket price. Indies should be very wary of setting their ticket prices too low. It’s way too easy to price your art out of existence. Artists need to respect their own work with appropriate pricing.

    Reply

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