Heretic’s Foundation III: Smart Plays Need Smart Audiences, Don’t They?

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By John Hudson
darkladyplayers@aol.com

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Americans for the Arts has called for $2 billion in arts-specific projects to “modernize, rehabilitate, and construct our nation’s cultural facilities.” But that won’t help the theater. We have theaters across the country; what we don’t have is demand: for straight plays, according to the National Endowment for the Arts report All America’s a Stage, the decline was 16% between 1992 and 2008. And because of declining demand, theaters are focusing on marketing issues, such as building a community through Twitter and Facebook, profiling audience segments, and deciding whether their audience-engagement platform should provide add-ons like videos of rehearsals, open rehearsals, texting with cast members or even cell phone access to backstage chatter. Add in the fact that increasing numbers of people now prefer to receive their best-buy recommendations from Facebook rather than from theater reviews in newspapers or websites, new kinds of outreach must be developed. Theaters are spending more and more on marketing because that is what you must do if your overall demand is declining. Basically, you have to sell the hell out of your product to capture — well, recapture — market share.

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There are two basic economic models for producing theater. One requires targeting large audiences with a relatively safe, typically conservative, mass-marketed product. The alternative is a small, more boutique-style operation that delivers very high value to uniquely targeted niche audiences. Clearly the latter model requires a different approach to understanding what constitutes value. When London’s first purpose-built playhouses were erected in the 1570s, they represented a new kind of technology, one that enabled a new kind of public discourse. In creating a vision of where we want the theater industry to be in 25 years, what is wrong with it now, and what process of innovation must occur to get it from here to there, let’s remember its origins and how that theater of five centuries ago began.

It began with a theater that was deeply controversial and embroiled in issues of belief and meaning. From the time the first wooden ‘O’ known as The Theatre was built in 1576 in the playing fields of Spitalfields, the ‘theater critics’ of the day had a very clear reaction. They recognized it as a theater of resistance, a challenge to religious orthodoxies and thus the very basis of state power. An entire generation of sermons and pamphlets criticized the plays and their players. In 1577, Thomas White complained in a sermon against the “common playes in London” and the “multitude that flocketh to them.” The same year, in his Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays and Interludes, John Northbrooke claimed stage plays were “not tolerable” and wanted to ban actors from receiving the divine sacrament. In his Anatomy of Abuses (1583), Philip Stubbes claimed plays were “sucked out of the Devil’s teats, to nourish us in idolatry, heathenrie, and sin.”

A few years later, there would have been clear risks for players at The Rose in performing the plays of Christopher Marlowe. He was, after all, an atheist who had declared the sacred Gospels “all of one man’s making” and that the figure of Jesus was merely a “deceiver” in “vain and idle stories.” Although some 40% of the English population were nonbelievers in Christianity, such revolutionary ideas were, again, a direct threat to state power. So for Marlowe’s plays — which contain a straightforward anti-Christian allegory most easy to spot in Dr Faustus — as well as others, the secret service would carefully monitor performances. State Decipherers, as they were called, were seated in the audience trying to work out if secret allegorical meanings were concealed within the plays. From time to time, as with The Isle of Dogs, the spies thought they had found something untoward. Then the playwright and the entire acting company were hauled off to prison, perhaps to be tortured. So performing theater was dangerous work, like walking a literary tightrope without a net. And that was one exciting reason why audiences went to see it. The cast might be arrested, but no government could arrest a whole audience.

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The second type of theater production, for which an acting company might be paid 20 pounds (rather more than for a night at a playhouse) was a private performance for a patron or at Court. The risks of performing at Court were higher, however, since the whole Court was present, not merely a few courtiers occupying the better seats. Since courtiers prided themselves on solving allegories — and since Queen Elizabeth was better at it than anyone else — any playwright penning covert allegories risked losing the battle of wits and dying like Marlowe did, as Charles Nicholl points out in his book The Reckoning, while being carefully watched over by a representative from each branch of the secret service.

It was in this environment that the Shakespearean plays were written — that is, before theater criticism or literary analysis existed concretely as a field, but in which there was a strong environment of popular dialogue. Will future historians examine how New Yorkers engaged in serious discussions of plays in their Facebook postings? I have never seen one. Indeed, most of today’s productions are intended as works of entertainment, not as efforts to reveal meaning. Consider how Mike Daisey, in his essay The Empty Spaces, described many theaters as “mashing up Shakespeare until it is a thin lifeless paste that any reasonable person would reject as disgusting” simply because it brings in money.

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Surely what is most important for the long term success of the theater is an informed audience able to engage in critical thinking, firstly about the nature of the play, and only secondarily about the nature of its performance. Because our culture is so orientated to consuming the surface performance, audiences lose sight of the meaning of the play underneath. So long as audiences fixate mostly on the performance, theaters will never be able to deliver much lasting value. There is only so much value and satisfaction to be gained from seeing a star or great scenery. A much more reliable source of value is in understanding the meaning of the play-again, if it is one that can create startling new insight. If a play actually means something really, really controversial then — as Elizabethan theaters demonstrated — it can deliver value even without stars, scenery, or even a marketing department.

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When Jacques Petit saw a performance of Titus Andronicus in 1596 he wrote, in French, that he valued the visual spectacle more than the narrative substance, and in this he might have resembled popular audiences today. Even Simon Forman, in his four descriptions of Shakespearean performances, only describes their surface plots, and he gets some of those wrong. Others like Francis Meres, the writer of Palladias Tamia, the Wit’s Treasury (1598), specifically praised the playwright’s “mellifluous and honey-tongued verse.” This paid no attention to contemporary literary theory that said one had to look underneath this honeyed surface, especially for pastorals — As You Like It, for instance — a genre designed to deceive and conceal hidden meanings. Yet there were others who could see that deeply: Gabriel Harvey, for example, who noted that the Shakespearean plays contained much in them for the “wiser sort.” Similarly, Ben Jonson wrote in Hymenaei (1606) that his own figures would be “so to be presented, as upon the view they might without cloud or obscuritie, declare themselves to the sharpe and learned” and that his allegory was “very clear” except to those who have “but thick eyes,” for whom the meanings would be would be “steps beyond their little, or (let me not wrong ‘hem) no braine at all.”

Today, many theaters compete both against each other and against other media for mass audiences. But smart plays need smart audiences. An alternative competitive positioning is to develop a niche audience that engages with plays because of what they mean and the benefits such an understanding can provide. If that meaning is revolutionary and outrageous enough, then perhaps, as in Elizabethan London, it could even create new audiences for the performing arts.

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John Hudson is a strategic consultant who specializes in new industry models and has helped create several telecoms and Internet companies. He is currently consulting to a leading think tank on the future of the theater industry and pioneering an innovative Shakespeare theory, as dramaturge to the Dark Lady Players. This Fall he will be Artist in Residence at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Theater and Shakespeare, in Management, and in Social Science.