Casting Your Audience
If the audience is as important as the actors in making a play work, why don't we spend as much time casting an audience as we do casting a play?
A backdrop for that question:
This weekend, I was lucky enough to observe the American Voices New Play Insitute at Arena Stage's convening on black playwrights. I was there on behalf of my goodly employer TCG, live tweeting the event @tcg and hashtag #newplay. Also make sure to check out Parabasis, Mission Paradox, 99 Seats and the New Play Blog for some in depth analysis of the event later this week.
At the convening, a playwright was discussing the impact of a racially charged joke early in her play on a primarily white audience. They froze, afraid to laugh; but as marketing tactics paid off and the audience diversified, black audience members who laughed at that moment gave the white audience members permission to do so, too.
What this example illuminates is the potential for a diverse audience to echo and enrich a moment on stage through the conflict and confluence of their different perceptions. You are aware not only of the meaning of the moment on stage, but of the meaning of your response in relation to rest of the audience. And this doubling of awareness and meaning doesn't necessarily distance you from the story, but makes it more visceral and immediate.
For more on how an audience's perception affects a play, check out these recent posts on A Different Case For Diversity, Let Me Down Easy, Quantum Darwinism, and More On Presence.
Which all leads us to the question: if the composition of an audience is as essential to a play's alchemy as the make-up of the cast, why don't we pay as much attention to casting the audience as we do to casting the play?
Obviously, I don't mean holding auditions for audience members; I mean considering the composition of the audience as carefully as we do that of the cast.
So who needs to be in the audience for the play to be fully heard?
Who is the choir for this play to preach to, and who is the power this play needs to speak truth to?
Both that power and that choir should be in the room together.
Who is this play about in the community? Are they represented in the audience?
And who in the community doesn't know about the people in this play?
Because they should be in the audience, too.
What are the conflicts in the play? Have all the sides of that conflict represented in the house.
Now, a theatre can only fit so many people, and we only have so much time in the day. But another take away from the convening was the power and necessity of reaching out to local partners who can advocate for you within the communities that the play needs present.
And with the aid of social media, we don't need to guess at who our audience is and how they think. We can ask. We can discover the complex and unique perceptions of our audience without relying solely on the blunt tools of demographics.
I could be very wrong: it could be our best way is to appeal to a devoted niche from an ever more fragmented culture.
But when I think of the audience I want to write for, act for, and sit in; it is an audience of diverse experiences united in focus, multiplying the power of our mutual awareness through our different perspectives.
Now, how do we make that happen?