Sunday, January 29, 2012

ORANGE HATS: Active Interpretation and Conversation of Culture

Inviting audiences to interpret the art works we present (make, produce, critique) is not pandering. I wish we would stop this disingenuous habit of conflating an audience member’s inherent desire and cultural right to interpret the meaning or value of a work of art with choosing the agenda for artists or arts organizations. Sports fans engage in some of the most active interpretation in our culture (and as a result experience real satisfaction and pleasure), but that doesn’t mean they choose the plays or create the roster. I mean, come on. 
That leads Joe Patti (Butts In Seats) to some questions about our theater-going audience culture
But have you ever been afraid to express your opinion about an artist or arts experience you have had for fear of either appearing elitist to the people around you, even close friends? Or on the other side of the coin, been afraid of appearing insufficiently knowledgeable? Why is that? Feeling unable to discuss these topics, of course, creates a vicious cycle where people continue to feel they can’t discuss these things.
Separately, Eric Ziegenhagen (2AMT) is wondering about the practical barriers to conversation:
When a theater is only open to the public for 15 minutes before and after a performance—and is otherwise closed and locked, with the public let in and, if necessary, kicked out—the question arises of how to make the performing arts a conversation, a participatory activity more articulated than active listening.
A lot of ink has been spilled about how the structure of our theater culture was designed in a producer/consumer model. There's a lot of examples: the practical aspects, like those Ziegenhagen points out about access to the physical space of theater, the aesthetic aspects, like the "fourth wall" realism that Brecht railed against, or the social aspects, like resistance to online critique.

I just wanted to draw attention to the question at the end of Joe Patti's post:
I am going to stop short of suggesting what we must do because I don’t think it is as simple as more arts coverage in the media, more arts in schools, more arts bloggers, more outreaches, more free performances. These may all help, but there are a lot chicken and egg factors to the arts environment in the United States. These things are useless of themselves if no one is receptive to them. How do you create that receptive environment?
My colleague Ben and I have been working on one model for a while.

The theatermakers themselves have an uneasy relationship to eliciting audience interaction or response, because especially at the moment the work is created and presented, they're trying to shepherd their intentions. It's a terrifying time, and they're still locked in a "promotion" mindset that makes them hard to interact with.

The critical community doesn't fill in because, as critics, their job is to channel their own opinions, not become a mouthpiece for the people.

In a way, what the audience needs is an outside force that demonstrates interest in their opinions. We're all used to the answers we get when we ask an audience what they thought of our work -- they certainly don't want to step on our toes. But what happens if someone else comes along and just asks them what they thought, and doesn't judge them on their response?

Well, something like this:

 Or this:

This is The Orange Hats, an audience response archive. All it takes is a camera, an orange hat, and the bravery to walk up to strangers and ask them what they thought about the show they just saw was.

I've learned a lot about people's reluctance to state their opinions. People are afraid to sound stupid. People are afraid to insult the artist. People are afraid that they look silly. Some of my favorite responses are the ones that, on the face of them, "sound stupid" -- but because they're not presented through cliche or academic language, actually get at people's genuine response to the work.

This isn't a model that we have some sort of monopoly over -- if you want to give it a shot, by all means do, and let us know how it goes. But it's up to the theater community to engage itself in conversation.