Tulsa Theatre Scene Discussion Panel: Performance Arts and The Audience

On May 8th, 2018, Tulsa Theatre Scene asked: “How does an audience relate to your pursuit of the performance arts? Do we fear that we lose the purity of the art in caring about marketing or audience tastes? And in a world with increasing entertainment options, is there room for both art as enjoyable escapism and art as a pointed reflection of society?”

These are the responses from Tulsa’s art community:

James Watts:

“One of my most memorable nights in Tulsa theater was attending the debut performance of a three-hour play in free verse — and being the only person in the audience. The fairly large cast give this play their all, acting as if their lives depended on doing this show.

In that case, audience did not matter. But that is an extreme case.

Look — it comes down, in my mind, to story. Whether it is a Neil Simon comedy or an obscure piece of avant-garde absurdist surrealism, the art comes in telling the story as clearly, confidently, and convincingly as possible.”

Jenny Burke:

“1. It isn’t PERFORMANCE ART without someone to perform to. Theatre, ballet, etc without audience is just rehearsal.

2. We don’t have to lose the purity of the art when we market to an audience. When [Sand Springs Community Theatre] chooses a season, we always consider what our community will buy tickets too. But then (ideally) our directors and actors and technicians spend a lot of time trying to create great art out of the show, ignoring the reason we might have chosen it to begin with. And why are we trying to separate art and marketability in theatre anyway? Isn’t one of the whole points of theatre to draw the audience in?

3. Enjoyable escapism and heavier comments on society are two halves of the same coin. We don’t have a comedy and tragedy masks for nothing. Although, I disagree with Aristotle’s preference for tragedy! I think enjoyable escapism is equally important!”

Robert Young:

“The question of “does art need an audience?” is tough. Certainly no artist wants their work to be irrelevant, so I would argue that the artist needs to be aware of their audience and if they can achieve the desired outcome given the size of the audience that the art would garner. If I am doing an intimate or niche piece of theatre, I have to expect that the audience will also be more intimate and I would budget my resources accordingly; likewise, if I were doing a “mass-marketed” piece of theatre, I expect that the audience will also be larger and would budget my resources accordingly. This requires cognizance on the part of the artist and their supporting infrastructure to ensure that they do not over/under-commit resources to projects which will make their continued work feasible, which means that you must keep your audience in consideration.

A popular strategy among theatre companies is to produce a couple of “commercially-successful” shows, which fund their ability to do more niche-market material. Unless you have a patron, I’m not sure what other strategies would be successful in satisfying the market while still producing artistically-satisfying works.”

Jimmy Pike:

“Sometimes you can play a show to 25 people and have it be the best work you’ve ever done. I think audience is pivotal in performance art, but not necessarily on the scale we’d all like. Smaller crowds are better than no crowd, but I’d still like to see butts in the seats.”

Tami Ellis:

“This is one of those very difficult questions to answer because you need an audience in order to market and you need a market to have an audience and since there are various opinions of what is Art and what is entertainment, it’s hard to get a good combination of both. I agree with Jimmy and that you can have a small audience with a very good performance rather than a large audience with a different experience. It’s also important to take the artist perspective on what they were trying to create and who they were trying to reach when they created what they created so in my opinion there has to be a very delicate marriage between both.”

Frank Gallagher:

“… I’ve never been comfortable with separating art from entertainment. Good art … should be accessible, should speak to an audience, should be interesting — which in my mind is the same thing as entertaining. Nothing’s worse than boring. Art that only appeals to the artist is solipsistic; art that only worries about being popular is a form of pandering. It’s about balance.

Regarding story: I’ve seen some pretty great performance pieces where story wasn’t the focus. Admittedly, the larger theatre audience prefers story because it provides a structure that the acting, character, language, themes, spectacle, etc. hang on. But those things are just as important, and ultimately will define ‘great’ art more than story.”

 

 

Tulsa Theatre Scene Discussion Panel: Reproducing Iconic Choreography

On May 1st, 2018, Tulsa Theatre Scene asked: “What are your thoughts on iconic choreography (such as Bob Fosse’s “The Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity or Michael Bennett’s “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line, or even classics such as “The Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake”) and its re-use in other productions? When is it appropriate to use existing choreography, and where do choreographers have freedom to stray from established or expected choreography?”

These are the responses for some of Tulsa’s top choreographers:

Pete Brennan, independent choreographer:

“When I worked with Andy Blankenbuehler, he used to lament that a choreographer’s work is the easiest to steal, and sometimes the most underappreciated creative form in musical theatre.

There have been instances where regional theatres get busted for copying Broadway choreography, but it’s extremely hard to police that sort of thing and choreography rarely gets formally copyrighted. Then you have the shows that require you to use the original choreo. Professional productions of Fiddler and WSS come with a choreography guide because the staging by Jerome Robbins is considered integral the show itself, and not a separate entity. I think the same goes for Chorus Line. If it’s professional theatre, those canon dance musicals may require the original choreography. And I believe there’s an art to recreating staging/choreo.

For me though, I do as much as I possibly can to cleanse my mind of any other productions I’ve seen (or done) when I’m choreographing a show, so it’s as original as I can possibly make it. However, sometimes there are elements of choreography and/or design, that are so iconic it would be silly to dismiss them (the bentwood chairs in Mein Herr for example). I strive for a balance of honoring (or paying homage to) the original choreographic intention, and making it my own art. And not including jazz squares or grapevines…

Before every dance audition I do in Tulsa, I say “This is more of an assessment for me to see what choreography would look best for you, the people dancing it. So don’t be nervous, because I’m not judging your dance ability. I’m figuring out how to make you all look the best you can doing my choreography.”

Jen Alden, Portico Dance Theatre:

“…I would add that with this kind of choreography specifically with musicals, it also depends on the direction of the show and specifically the director. Some directors want it to be exactly as written as perhaps it’s so iconic, and some make the choice not to follow the guide, and some like a mix. For me, personally, I prefer not to do as written: I like creating my own movement as I think that doing as written is more “teaching” the choreography of others rather than “creating” choreography but in many instances where you have a visual that is so iconic you just need to make sure that is highlighted even if you create differing movement around it. When you are talking about rich man frug though that is not to be touched it must be done as first created because there is in my opinion no reason to change it and in that case I say or announce in rehearsal I’m not the choreographer of the movement I’m merely teaching or staging the original. So in summary: it all depends.”

Sara Phoenix, Theatre Tulsa:

“…There is very little in life more rewarding than seeing your own original choreo – that you created over hours and hours in your living room or studio – unfold vibrantly on a stage full of dancers. Sometimes contracts dictate or allow original choreo and it is necessary to the show. But the real joy is in watching your own creation flourish and inspire others. It’s really an other-worldly experience that I’d wish anyone would have the opportunity to experience sometime in their life. Same with directing, for me! And to Christy’s point – I’ve found experience is everything in understanding how movement should serve the story and how the dance fits with the vocal aspects of a song. Sometimes it takes a few tries for choreographers to get that. And, in general, the skill set to be a choreographer is very different than the one required for a dancer. So, finding a trained dancer with the ability to choreograph appropriately is like finding a diamond! And, for some shows (ahem Newsies), there is no getting around the need for “pit singers.” 10 minute dance breaks and extremely difficult vocal requirements almost mandate that.”

Kara Staiger, independent choreographer:

“It’s a mixed bag. There are expectations for some specific numbers to have iconic movement and an audience may recognize if it is not what they were expecting. There are also songs choreographed for specific movement –the thing that comes to mind is Will Rogers Follies. When choreographing the show, I tried to mix in what was expected with something new. I had people comment both ways: ‘Why didn’t you try something new and be original?’ and ‘What was wrong with the original choreography and staging?’ I think it’s about seeing something you know and feeling safe and seeing something new or a variation. Both have their merits.”

David Rickel, independent choreographer:

“I think it is important that all choreography should be created for the people performing it. That is to say within their abilities. Nothing looks worse that non-dancers trying to reproduce professional dance choreography.”

Ari Christopher, Tulsa Modern Movement:

“Working in the style of the original choreographer would be expected if the overall interpretation of the show is similar to the original, but stealing the choreo is a “no-no”. Trying to reproduce the Broadway recording would probably be counter-productive because it’s not likely that the local movers will be able to reproduce the Broadway choreography well enough to be watchable. It’s more likely that the local choreographer will make dance that highlights the skills of their cast when they make something new.”