Topic #2 – the audience’s process

(2) The audience’s process (or, in the marketplace): Can audiences of Dance and Theatre effectively meld? Is there a possibility for a greater “live culture” that does not identify with single, separate disciplines but with hybrid forms that cross boundaries and break new ground? Considering how events listings are broken down in virtually every media outlet in the country into separate categories, we wonder how long it will take until the information catches up with the art. In a world full of marketing genius, how is it that the marketing of the performing arts is a regressive discourse?

Let’s post our thoughts on this by September 25. I think the practice of posting without reading others’ remarks is a good one. Then I’d like to encourage you to read others’ and comment on them.

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10 Responses to Topic #2 – the audience’s process

  1. Todd Coulter says:

    The marketing frustration stems, I think, from the general public’s desire to keep their forms separate. Like a picky child who won’t let his vegetables touch his potatoes, I think the average arts patron likes to keep theater and dance separate. This desire and need to keep things separate comes from the way performance is programmed in spaces. I’m thinking here specifically of New York and how only certain theatres hose dancing and other only theatre. Lincoln Center may be the most conspicuous example of this, and perhaps the root for our current commercial trend to separate theatre and dance. The three spaces on the plaza were built to house three separate forms: the ballet, the opera, and the symphony. It was only late in the planning that theatre was added. Here in once location audience members are being guided through architectural planning that within the arts forms are discrete. Connected to all of this is status. Theatres and spaces uptown (above 14th) still project a certain air of legitimacy and success. Downtown is the location for experimentation. There is a new space, The Rover Soho, that continually stages pieces that straddle the line between Theatre and Dance. For example, in August founder and choreographer Rani Welch presented her work “Diablo.” With two performers and very little choreography, “Diablo” was seen by approximately 40 people in the Rover’s small Soho space. The people in attendance were friends of the performers (there were other works in the evening) or friends of friends. Welch’s work was not “dancey” in the way the New York Times seems to lament the absence of choreography, but it was a dance/theatre piece. The content and construction of her work is not the focus here, but rather the small audience of friends and supporters. Marketing is a major concern and worry for The Rover as it attempts to make a name for itself. And this is exactly the point, people want a sure thing. There has been very little success, on a grand Broadway scale, for pieces that bridge Theatre and Dance. Contact and Movin’ Out may be exceptions to this rule, but then again their status as dance/theatre is dubious too. I really feel that until the main ticket buying population of New York (i.e. tourists, and wives of heterosexual couples) are allowed to look at works like Carrie’s SeNSATE as being a good way to spend money (and hopefully the presence in the Times will do just that), then we must be content with filling houses with the initiated and our friends.

    • Meagan Bruskewicz says:

      I feel like being linked to being experimental, as you mention, is more of a hindrance to growth than the segregation of performance spaces. Even Lincoln Center already does some crossover, with various dance groups performing at the opera house and I’m pretty sure some theater goes on in the house built for Balanchine/the David Koch Theater. To me, the mark of being experimental and therefore the status that goes with that are harder to overcome than the transformation of spaces. And certainly status and money are needed to really build our audiences. I recently performed at the Rover, which is a great space, for sure. But it’s somewhat impossible to expand beyond friends of performers there because there’s only room for about 30 audience members in the first place. If we want bigger audiences, we also need bigger houses, which means more money, which perhaps means selling more tickets and getting bigger audiences???

  2. I think audiences these days are sophisticated enough to seek out, and respond intelligently to, interdisciplinary dance-theatre. I also think that, for better or worse, TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance? and social media networks that routinely broadcast urban flash mob scenes have made it somewhat easier to engage audiences already popularly attuned to the expressive possibilities of dance in a larger conversation about what properties it shares with theatre, and what social topics it might productively address with the aid of theatrical techniques.

    At the same time, I agree that at the basic level of things like events listings and reviewing, a medium-specific bias prevails that tends to segment audiences into those that are interested in dance and those that are interested in theatre. I think that with the right kind of tactical branding and marketing these things can be overcome. The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival here in Vancouver (on whose Board I sit), which occurs every January-February, programs a mix of dance, theatre, dance-theatre, music, multi-media, and installation-based work, and has slowly but steadily built up a core audience that recognizes interdisciplinarity as one of its hallmarks. I would say the same holds true for audiences who attend Seattle’s On the Boards. Still, the critics have been slow to catch up. A piece like Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s poetics: a ballet brut, which was part of this past PuSh Festival, was reviewed by Janet Smith of The Georgia Straight and Kevin Griffin of the Vancouver Sun (both dance critics) rather than by Colin Thomas and Peter Birnie (the theatre critics for the same publications).

    In the case of our own recently staged work, we were very conscious in our posters and postcards of not labeling it a play, or even a work of dance-theatre. Instead we called it an “interdisciplinary premiere” and hoped the title of the piece, together with the list of creative contributions by our collaborators, would solicit as wide and diverse an audience as possible. It helped that we could count on fans of Rob’s choreography and of Kugler’s direction and dramaturgy recognizing their names and likely making an effort to catch the show. Plus we were playing in an institutional framework—SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts—which has a student audience attuned to, if not always trained in, performance creation and collaboration across disciplines.

    Still, an interesting thing happened when it came to our events listing in The Georgia Straight, our version of Seattle’s The Stranger or NYC’s Village Voice. After they finally got our notice in there (well into the final week of our run), they ran it twice: once as part of the fall arts preview listings for dance; and once as part of the current “what’s on” listings for theatre. Whether or not this had any effect in encouraging or discouraging audiences from seeing our work is hard to say. And, alas, we weren’t reviewed by the mainstream press, so I can’t retail how the piece would have been received generically by critics. But we did get lots of electronic feedback from people who saw the show, who seemed to respond positively to the mix of performance modes. Here’s a sampling of what our audience members had to say:

    “Hi Kugler. Thanks, to you and the whole team, for The Objecthood of Chairs. I was unexpectedly moved by it. Unexpectedly because, although the academic, albeit playful, lesson in the history and cultural embrace of the chair set me up for the human story, it did not prepare me for it. The revealing of the wheel chair was powerful and in that instant there was a transformation in my engagement with the story. I thought how could I not have seen that coming, yet I did not and that was very satisfying. As was the fact that where I began the play, more in my mind, is very different from where I finished, more in my heart. Appreciations for the multi-disciplinary journey and for the striking – really, who knew that a line of chairs could be so compelling? – imagery and movement sensibility.”

    “Amanda and I both really enjoyed it. I especially liked the interaction between the two men – the feet dance in the part where they were sitting particularly neat, the movement altogether, the music/sound (chairs scraping!), the imagery, beautiful bridge shots and the nice language change that came with the poem. I liked the way the story built, though was less responsive to the chair lecture. Interestingly, Amanda loved that part. I hope your audiences continue to grow in numbers and enthusiasm.”

    “We saw Peter’s play last night and it’s a fabulous collaboration of narrative, performance, furniture, and media. The two performers seamlessly integrate dance and theatre, and your thinking about chairs will be forever changed. Go see it while you can!”

    “I just wanted to send a quick note as I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye last night and say what a pleasure it was to attend the play. After some trouble finding a place to have a drink, our group cozied in from the rain and discussed the play over a few glasses. One of the most interesting things was that we all enjoyed different aspects of the production- some talked about loving how much they learned about design and chairs, as if the play was an exploding lecture, while others loved the video, the lighting, or use of movement. We all talked of the humour in the writing (I especially like the Knocked Up scene, of course) and of how impressed we were with the performers and their ability to handle such a dense and thought-provoking script. What an example in collaboration to have so many aspects working together in the play in such a fluid manner!”

    “Just a quick note to say how much I enjoyed your play on Thurs. night. I thought the incorporation of lecture, dramatization, poetry, dance etc. was really inspired.”

    “Thanks also for the “Chairs” show the other night! Great performances and movement sequences (and all the chair facts were very cool). It looks like it would have been a very fun piece to work on.”

    “Hey Don, Really cool show last night. I couldn’t get to you for all your fans but I wanted to congratulate you. I thought it was very elegant; the way you wove all the diverse elements was masterful – and pretty great technical capabilities in that theatre. I liked the way the metaphor of weight-bearing `was picked up in the contact improv style dance, the object of chairs, and relationships, and led to the ultimate weight bearing of guilt, resentment, and disability.”

    “Hi Peter, I went to “Objecthood of Chairs” last night. I wanted to write and tell you how wonderful I thought it was. It is smart, funny, and elegant. I LOVE the level of detail about the history of chairs. I liked the lighter moments and I did have a tear at the end (can you please write a sequel where they get back together and live to 105). It works so well. The actors were magnificent and the choreography was divine. I gush so I’ll stop. Basically, it was great and I hope you are proud of it.”

    “From my end – beautiful composition, very informative, excellent integration with media, lighting, etc. except for the odd call or choice…I was engaged the entirety! I especially enjoyed the section of Charles Rennie MacIntosh and Frank Lloyd Wright – I am fans of both and spent a lot of time in MacIntosh world when doing my masters in London. Visited Glasgow several times to see his work there. I have started my Alexander classes – Sundays thru Wednesdays (still chuckling from last night and trying my best to sit properly at the computer!)”

    “Hi Peter: Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your production. My mouth was hurting half way through because I was smiling so much; so charmed by the way you combined the documentary info about chairs, the relationship, and the technology and dance. So great! Hope you stage it again in Vancouver soon so everyone who missed it can see it!”

    “Hey Rob, Congrats on the Objecthood of Chairs! It was a fantastic production-
    Justin and Vic blew me away. I really appreciated the awesome integration of the play, with dance and film- they all supported each other wonderfully! Of course, your movement was fabulous and looked like a good time! Congratulations to everyone involved.”

    “Hi Peter: Your play was wonderful, beautifully cast and produced. It was moving and witty and thought-provoking and all those good things a play should be. And I learned all sorts of things about chairs! I loved the two scenes “you learn a lot about a person [yourself] when you move in with someone” and the whole this one/that one business—scenes of heart. I was a bit bewildered by the Buddha and mudras scene—it didn’t quite seem to integrate. Overall the mix of film, dance, and narrative worked beautifully and I was very impressed with the way you integrated the chairs in all genres and the lecture into narrative. Congratulations on a very fine show.”

    • Elizabeth Lentz says:

      I do believe theatre and dance audiences can meld. As Peter’s responses show, and as any of us who have performed in physical theatre/dance theatre works know, audiences are thrilled with these integrative pieces. We humans inherently know that we are meant to be integrated beings––body/mind connected, communal, and expressive to our fullest degree. Audiences respond to experiences that touch them at this integrated level.

      Now, how do we get them to come see the shows? Maybe the first step is for artists to demand to be listed in both theatre and dance listings. I also think someone should pitch the idea of a new listing to the media outlets. For example, Chicago has numerous physical theatre companies (including 500 Clown, Plasticene, Lookingglass, TUTA, and Collaboraction), and numerous dance theatre groups/artists (Lucky Plush Productions, Peter Carpenter, and Liz Barrett, to name a few). Individually they don’t hold much sway, but what if one of the companies sat down with key folks at the Chicago Tribune and TimeOut Chicago to talk about the presence of integrated dance/theatre works in Chicago. It really is a current trend and a unique aspect of Chicago’s art scene. There is an article waiting to happen in the way these groups are pushing our art and are getting national recognition for it. Then, perhaps, it will be appropriate to have a new listing for these cross-over/blended groups.

      This leads to the question, what do we call this new listing? On a page you’d see “dance,” “theater,” and “________”? No matter the title, it will require more audience education. Why is the paper adding this category? How do audience members talk about these integrated works? What should audience members come prepared to see? I think many artists shy away from this kind of education, thinking it dumbs down our art, but I disagree. I have found giving the audience simple clues into the work, even before they see it, allows them to relax into new experiences.

      Lastly, artists might have to take matters into our own hands. We might need to create momentum, language, and a presence for these works. This could look like: a festival of physical theatre/dance theater works, several companies sharing a performance, or several companies creating a “season” together to encourage audiences members to see additional groups in this genre.

    • Meagan Bruskewicz says:

      I find it really interesting that many or your responders called the work a “play” while also noting both its dance and theater components.

  3. Jeffrey Frace says:

    I’m a tad pessimistic about critics and event-listings sections catching up any time soon. I wonder whether we can get any insider perspective on that – are any of you able to chat up a friendly critic in the next couple months and get the scoop? Even Seattle’s artsy weekly, The Stranger, separates Dance and Theatre, and it’s anyone’s guess where listings for On the Boards’ dance-theatre shows are going to go (usually in Dance, but it’s not always predictable). I imagine the editors would answer that there are relatively few “true crossover” works, and most shows do neatly fall into one category or another. To which I might pitch this idea: if not One category, then how about Three? This may be a shameless scheme to increase “shelf space” for the performing arts, but what about:
    1. Classical dance (to include the “old modern” or no?)
    2. Plays & musicals (basically, I’m trying to cordon off the traditionalists here, too)
    3. Multidisciplinary live culture (which may include performance art)
    Of course this will make a mess, I haven’t thought it through, and I need much better names. Personally, I prefer a more holistic approach, and I recognize the value of all the shades from the classical/traditional to the contemporary/avantgarde… but, this new category might alert some more theatre & dance audiences to performative exhibits at museums, such as Marina Abramovic at MoMA (performance art), Christian Marclay at the Whitney (music + visual art + dance) and Matthew Barney at the Guggenheim (visual art + film + dance + music). Plus, self-servingly, it would give me a place to look first when I’m in a hurry to see what’s playing.

    I’m already an audience of multidisciplinary live culture, and I’m fairly confident everyone on this blog is, too. My most-visited venues in New York are BAM, PS122 and Dance Theatre Workshop. In Seattle, it’s On the Boards (where I’m also a Board Member). These places have successfully groomed cross-over audiences. So, it is just up to the venue & artist to market themselves well? What further demands can we make of our arts sections in our local papers? How about department divisions at colleges and universities? Is that where the line-drawing begins, or is it just reinforced there?

    I think that boundary-blending and holistic-arts-consciousness are going against the grain of the human intellect. Dialectics are fundamental to our understanding of reality – “not this but that” – right? The body feels the arbitrariness of the divisions. The body gives and receives the performance in the present moment. But it is the intellect that reads the newspaper.

    • Meagan Bruskewicz says:

      You and Elizabeth bring up the major problem inherent in this discussion, about what we should call this hybrid form of dance and theater. We certainly can’t propose change and growth if we can’t come up with a good title, something that could be used for events listings and publication departments. I also think your question about where it all begins is an important one. Maybe it means influencing college dance departments as you say, to change perceptions early on.

  4. Carrie Ahern says:

    There are two parts of this question to address: the theoretical and the practical. They are not exclusive of each other….

    Can audiences of Dance and Theatre effectively meld?
    I think that audiences (and artists) get attached to forms. This can happen even before the work is seen, but in how someone hears about the work in order to go see it at all. In order to show up at a live event, you usually have some however vague expectation of what you will witness. We self select based on what we have liked or disliked in the past or upon our interest in a certain theme. But once we encounter the work, we all also have notions about how someone is expressing their themes through form. Do we agree or like their means of expression? Is it effective? How do we feel as audience members bumping up against an artist’s specific forms of expression? We create form to deal with chaos. If we expect dance to have specific forms to deal with that chaos and we expect theatre to have a specific forms to deal with that chaos it is because we are looking for something to hold on to, something that feels like it means something.
    Is there something underneath all form, something essential, a “bedrock of fundamentals”. Or is form all we have? Each audience member and audience member is deciding where they fall on this spectrum, whether they realize it our not. Why we like what we like is personal, and perhaps always a mystery.
    I think honestly, there is no “audience for dance” or “audience for theatre”. There are just singular “people in a specific audience at a specific place at a specific time”

    Will audiences of Dance and Theatre effectively meld?

    They will meld –If you can engage or “trick” someone into believing that even though they have spent time and effort with theatre, they really want to be exposed to dance. Or vice versa. And that by seeing work in another form they are both not abandoning and abandoning their commitment to the first form. Anyone who has dedicated time and effort to one may have no baggage around the new form. Or they may have a lot. Also, on a practical level, you are attempting to have someone who is presumably busy change not only their perceptions, but also their personal habits in order show up—and possibly to embrace a new community. It is not always as loaded as that, but can be.

  5. Meagan Bruskewicz says:

    Is there a possible audience for hybrid as opposed to separate forms? To an extent, there already is such an audience. As Jeffrey mentioned, we in this group are evidence that there are already people viewing and seeking out hybrid works. But can this audience grow beyond the practitioners of such works and their friends, and if so where would more audience members come from? Since we are still in the beginning phases of exploring dance/theater works, I am optimistic that the audience will grow as the form continues to grow. Beyond those already drawn in, I think that new audience members for this greater “live culture” would actually come from the separate audiences for dance and theater. It seems an easier leap for someone previously familiar with one or the other forms to embrace an extra performance component than for someone completely outside of either community. So as we continue to push the form as creators, perhaps we also should be urging our separate audiences to cross their own boundaries and open up to an unfamiliar form. Can audience members of theater and dance effectively meld? Well, let’s hope so since it’s perhaps the only way to gain an audience beyond friends and friends of friends.

    After previously doing an internship in the marketing department at DTW, my two cents is that the marketers are not to blame for being “behind the times.” In order to attract new audiences and sell tickets, marketing must cater to the acceptance level of the audience, not the progression of the art itself. This is why a lot of marketing still opts for separate and more familiar terminology. But, as previously discussed, there are certainly other problems with infrastructure that are hindering further recognition and acceptance of a hybrid genre – events listings, publication reviews and departments, performance spaces. In thinking how to change these things, I keep coming to the chicken and the egg, as in which comes first: changing the audience or changing the infrastructure. Do we focus on building a bigger audience and guiding them with more information about the form, thinking that we will be able to change infrastructure only when there is substantial support and recognition for the form? Or do we go ahead and change the infrastructure (designate hybrid spaces, hire hybrid reporters), thinking that this will in turn educate the audience and bring them up to speed with the form? Chicken or egg, I just don’t know. And maybe it’s not even that cut and dry, but calls for some sort of mixed strategy.

    As somewhat of a side note, I feel like there has been a lot of talk recently about audiences. Perhaps because of the reality of the recession, there was a lot of discussion at the recent Dance/USA conference about how dance is staying relevant and continuing to attract an audience. And since then, Dance/USA has launched an initiative called Engaging Dance Audiences (EDA) with an online network/forum ( and a survey campaign with dance companies and organizations (results to be published next year). I have taken the survey (maybe you guys have also), and noted that it mostly focuses on how people engage with dance. Thus, with all this talk about audiences, I think it’s interesting that there is not much talk about what audiences like to see – not what’s on the stage but how they engage with what’s on the stage.

  6. Meagan Bruskewicz says:

    Since I am still close friends with Megan Sprenger, Marketing Director of DTW, I asked her to sit down with me the other night and have a chat about these ideas. And I thought I would separately share some highlights from that conversation. Apart from the job, just as herself, Megan would call the dance/theater, cross disciplinary works we are discussing as simply “performance.” But as Marketing Director for a fundamentally dance-focused presenting organization, where it’s about selling tickets, such works are generally called “contemporary dance.” Even though calling it “contemporary dance” sometimes sets up movement expectations for an audience that are not met, the organization still opts for the more familiar term. She explained that while returning audience members already understand the scene and are open to going on a ride with each visit, new audiences want something more familiar that they can rely on. And of course to build audiences and sell more tickets, they cater to un-tapped/unfamiliar crowd. Yet in dealing with genre issues, she said that DTW mostly tries to avoid labeling the works presented. They prefer to describe the works rather than simply label them and have recently created broader categories to group similar pieces under – “story-driven,” “movement based” (for more traditionalists), “conceptual” (probably just a nicer term for experimental or boundary-crossing), and “historically relevant.” Interestingly, outside of marketing language, she’s much less sure about labels, wondering where the lines are drawn and who decided on the defining parameters.

    I thought an interesting question that came up in our conversation was: if you are going to label something, what do you look at to make that label? Do you look at the training of the creator or of the performers? Do you look at the particular background or community that the creator comes from? Is it simply about the ratio of the forms presented onstage? Do you try to decide which form is more important to the work or more emphasized?

    Thinking about the future, Megan feels that such hybrid forms will continue to grow since there will always be people interested in pushing boundaries. She thinks such works do have the potential to become popular/mainstream if they are well-executed and use an accessible approach. It will also take time and money to get there.

    For DTW’s part, Megan feels that the goal is to help the audience along – not teaching but providing many, various avenues of understanding. Their job is to provide as much information as possible, so the audience can feel more connected and engaged, but without hindering the artist’s voice or telling the audience what to think.

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