There’s an antagonism so often present in the relationship between artist and audience that I find incredibly discouraging and sometimes infuriating. And I think it arises out of the notion that audiences see themselves as customers, rather than patrons. After all, they’ve shelled out all this money to ‘purchase’ a product, and that product better damn well live up to expectations, right?
The scene is all too familiar. The reluctant consumer arrives, scans the program, skeptically eyeing the credentials of the actors and crew, then crosses their arms as the lights go down, grimly tightening their jaw. They set their minds to the notion that the performers will have to work for it – they will have to EARN their money.
Plenty of artists will blame modern audiences, but it’s hardly a new phenomena. Be it Rome’s deadly ‘bread and circuses’ or the tomato-throwing audiences of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, there has always been a component of audiences that placed high demands on performers, with little or no appreciation to the creative process.
Process. I feel that’s the key word that too often gets ignored. There is far too much emphasis placed by the consumer on the final product. Creation is a miracle of sorts. That someone (or a group of someones) can transform something from their imagination into something tangible to share with the world is an amazing thing. And sometimes, in looking at the final product, simply because it is ‘not our taste’ or not as we would have imagined it, that process is forgotten and unappreciated.
When it comes to theatre (or film, or any collaborative work, really), there is even more process. Weeks, months or years go into developing a show. There is laughter. There are tears. Every step along the way is a fight to get a cohesive vision that the company will try to communicate to the audience.
Creation is a battle. A battle with one’s self to birth an idea. And when it’s done, everyone looks at the baby and forgets the labour.
It’s very tempting as an artist to be disdainful of an an unreceptive audience. “It went over their heads,” we’ll say, or speak dismissively of them as if they are somehow uneducated or unworthy. It’s a hard thing to admit to ourselves, after all the blood, sweat and tears we’ve put in, that we simply didn’t connect.
There are performers, in the face of rejection, that say “Fuck it. I perform for myself, and if they don’t like it, screw ’em.” I think this is disingenuous. An fundamental part of the creative process (if you’re going to earn a living, anyway) is connecting with your audience.
Does this mean pandering? I don’t think so. But I do think their needs to be a détente of sorts. I think as performers we need to help audiences see themselves in the work. I think we also need to help them connect to the process and let them know that they are a fundamental part of that process and our ability to create a successful experience. That they are patrons and participants, not consumers. Consumers devour.
We need audiences to be the fuel that both ignites the embers of creativity and stokes the flames as the fire burns brighter.
And we all need to learn that there is worth in the act of creation. That even if the end product is not as we imagined it, or fails to hit the mark, that there is value in investing in the effort.