“In the face of [a] typhoon of data vying for our attention, we find a measure of self-actualization in the 16 ‘likes’ that friends proffer our duck-faced self-portraits. It mixes a sense of desperation, vanity, hunger for attention, and pathos … It’s also a modern mode of ‘bookmarking,’ like carving one’s name in a tree – witness the thousands of visitors snapping selfies in front of the Mona Lisa.” Noah Charney looks at the phenomenon, referencing neuroscience, Magritte, and Bosnian stand-up comedy.
The audience at “The Color Purple,” which was ending its run, gave her and former President Bill Clinton several standing ovations. One audience member “shook her hand, but said he is still filled with frustration over her loss. ‘She shouldn’t be here. She should be planning her cabinet,’ he said.”
Maureen Ryan, chief TV critic for Variety: “I really take my hat off to men and women of color and women who actually fight these tropes in the room because every time you open your mouth for whatever reason to contradict the showrunner, you’re taking your career in your hands.”
Artists including Richard Serra and Cindy Sherman have signed on to the “J20 Art Strike,” and some museums are considering it as well. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) says it won’t close because “Our entire program and mission, every day, is an expression of inclusion and appreciation of every culture.”
How do you know what an audience is really thinking? Polite applause only tells you so much. Lagging ticket sales aren’t precise about cause. Focus groups aren’t reliable. So then there’s this story about millennials’ reaction to an O’Neill play they were attending:
About two scenes into the play, the students began to grumble among themselves. It was clear they felt they didn’t relate to the story. They were bored, and they resented being forced to attend a three-hour play. But instead of leaving the theatre and taking a zero for the assignment, which might have constituted a kind of nonviolent protest, they began speaking and laughing with each other. Some were asked to leave, but those who remained continued to interrupt the performance with chatter and flash selfies, videos, and a laser pointer. One performer was hit in the eye with the beam.
While that audience’s behavior was unacceptable, I wonder whether we might learn something from it. In some ways, the unadulterated responses of those disgruntled, unengaged students may be a gift. As theatremakers and educators, we have an immense responsibility to deal with this demographic in particular, for they are the next generation of audiences who will—or will not—attend shows created by the next generation of theatre artists.
We might see that disrupted O’Neill performance as a call to reexamine the invitation we extend to student audiences—to question our programming choices as well as our motivations for assigning performances to students in the first place. In short, it can be an opportunity to ask ourselves: What do we gain, and what do we lose, when we invite the next generation of theatregoers into our theatres?
But it’s not just student audiences. How are artists to understand the impact of and engagement with their work if audiences aren’t honest in their responses? Even if those responses aren’t polite. Which is not to say that artists should have to accept laser pointers and selfies. But a decision to write off such behavior and such audiences is a choice to define the conditions and context in which our work needs to be seen. Which is fine. As long as we’re clear about what they are.
When she’s not making big data discoveries that slay the conspiracy theories about who else might have written the plays, the scholar Heather Wolfe is creating things like Project Dustbunny, “one of her initiatives at the Folger Shakespeare Library, [that] has made some extraordinary discoveries based on microscopic fragments of hair and skin accumulated in the crevices and gutters of 17th-century books.”