Theatrical Expeditions

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All of us at The Inkwell are proud as punch to make a contribution to launching new plays... largely as playmakers. But there's another important group of people that make playmaking possible... our playgoers.

If you're not already tuned in, there's been a rather robust discussion about audience participation in playmaking. It started with a major convening of the new play community  -- entitled "From Scarcity to Abundance" -- hosted by Arena Stage's American Voices New Play Institute.  At the end of January, Arena brought playmakers from across the country to their spiffy new space to talk about all the ways in which the theatre community is supporting new play development and how this work can be taken to a new level.

There's so much that was discussed (with much blogging and tweeting afterward...much of the after-convening conversation can be found at www.2amtheatre.com) but there was one particularly splashy moment. The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Rocco Landsman suggested in remarks and in a back-and-forth with theatre folks that there were two many theaters in America, especially given that audiences for theatre is shrinking. (The entire conversation was recorded on video by Arena Stage.)
 
Huh. Well, lot's of people have had something to say about Mr. Landesman hypothesis, including the following (just in case you want a short list of the responses):
 
One of The Inkwell's newest supporters (and our newest board member), Manny Strauss, offers the following thoughts on what an audience member really is... and how we might want to rethink the nomenclature.

We'd love to know what you think. Please join in on our discussion about the role of the audience in new play development. What do we need to do to energize and engage audiences in making plays? What do we need to do to help audience members to become active explorers and collaborators in new play development?

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This is Manny Strauss and I am honored to be blogging for the first time on Inkblog! For five years, Betsy Karmin and I published Washington Theater Review. It was a labor of love and, in some ways, a chronicle of our personal journey with the Washington theater community. While that particular journalistic journey came to an end a few years ago, our theatrical expeditions never ceased and our passion for new play development recently led us to The Inkwell.

Lewis and ClarkSince attending the Inkreading of Monument in November, I have had the opportunity to chat several times with Jessica Burgess (The Inkwell's Artistic Director) about The Inkwell's plans, aspirations, and ambitions and can easily say it appears headed toward becoming (if it isn't already) an essential resource for new play development in our flourishing theater community.

I have been particularly impressed with the strategic thinking being applied to all aspects of the organization's development. Let me give an example here. In our first conversation, Jessi described a nomenclature issue with which she was grappling. As you know if you have been reading this blog, The Inkwell is a resource for playwrights, playmakers, and playgoers. She was concerned about the inadequacy of the term "playgoer" to describe the unique kind of audience experience offered by Inkwell for people who want to be part of the play development process. She preferred "playgoer" to "audience" or "spectator" as the latter both imply more passivity but was still dissatisfied and thought "playgoer" did not go far enough.

I fully understood the root issue here. Playwriting begins as a very solitary activity. That said, the end result of the endeavor is a play - an interaction with a live audience. At some point during the process many playwrights and plays benefit greatly from exposing the work in process to sentient others to experience the piece. Ideally, the audience in such situation will be engaged, thoughtful, interactive, and participatory. Jessi challenged me to come up with a more descriptive term that better characterized this role of an Inkwell audience.

This was not an easy assignment! After the challenge was delivered in an in-person conversation, the e-mail exchange began. My first two suggestions were "collaborators" or "partners in crime." Jessi politely rejected those while encouraging (humoring?) me that I was on the right track. She feared that "partners in crime" would send the wrong message. What was the crime? Playwrights might get nervous and fear that the crime was the "heartless murder of their nascent work" and while that might happen at other institutions that was certainly not the Inkwell way. She shared her vision of Inkwell in general as a "think tank" for new plays and indicated that she elicits much eye rolling from her Inkwell colleagues when using the term "Ink tank" to describe the interaction between the Inkwell team, including the audience, and a playwright.

It was time for more contemplation. "Navigators?" "Rudder?" That doesn't sound right. What self-respecting person is going to want to be called a "rudder?" "Midwives?" While a midwife has a certain applicable nurturing characteristic, the term just doesn't work.

After further mulling, I propose referring to Inkwell audience members as "explorers." The essence of exploring is to go to a place that is by definition unfamiliar. Explorers approach whatever they are doing with a keen sense of adventure and excitement and isn't that what new play development needs? The goal is to develop new voices and new methods of expression; otherwise we would all be happy staying at home watching another reality show on television. Inkwell matches new voices with an audience that seeks adventure and facilitates a lively discussion and interaction between playwright and explorer.

I participated in the exploration of Monument. Playwright Doug Dolcino's piece included a fascinating Greek chorus of postal workers. I must admit that I have never seen that before and found myself thinking about his use of the chorus many times since then.

Are you qualified to be an explorer? Exploring sounds like an advanced course. Are there prerequisites? These questions are rooted in an incorrectly perceived snobbishness embedded in some playgoers. Betsy and I are both "self-taught" explorers. We always have loved going to theater and using a play as a springboard for a post-show conversation. The only materials needed for this type of course are inquisitive, open, and thoughtful minds - characteristics that are in quite large supply in the Washington area.

You might be wondering how Inkreadings are different from play readings presented by any number of other organizations around town. I haven't put my finger on that quite yet. I do know that Inkwell's work is unique and exciting. Alas, further contemplation on this subject may lead to a future blog.

In the meantime, should you choose to join the corps of explorers for future adventures, you might not fall in love with every new piece you get to know but you undoubtedly will enjoy the ride. Plus, you will have the opportunity to interact with many amazingly bright members of our theater community. I know that Betsy and I look forward to participating in many future Inkwell expeditions!

2 Comments

I thought this was another interesting exploration into the experience of an audience, and our responsibility to audiences in presenting material that is difficult to watch.

http://halcyontheatre.org/blog/jenn/2011/02/what-our-responsibility-our-audience

First, for context, my own contribution to the debate:

http://www.suilebhan.com/2011/02/15/its-not-a-supply-and-demand-problem/

With that in mind, I want to commend the Inkwell for doing so much to engage audiences in the development of new work. I sincerely believe audience disenfranchisement is the single greatest contributing factor to the marginalization of theater as an art form. (There are others, of course.) The work you are doing may feel daunting, to be sure, but I believe it to be of critical importance.

My only note of caution is this: in cultivating feedback from audiences, we should all be sure to try to reach audiences different from ourselves. It would be easy to try this little experiment and find that we'd only engaged people just like us... whose tastes and preferences and ideas will not be challenging enough to shake us out of our complacency and dare us to make bigger work.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by The Inkwell published on February 18, 2011 2:02 PM.

We are all tethered... thoughts from a playwright on a world premiere was the previous entry in this blog.

Crowns, Sister Act, and Monkeys! is the next entry in this blog.

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