Tulsa Theatre Scene Discussion Panel: Performance Arts and The Audience

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.”



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