Diane Ragsdale has a thoughtful piece in her Jumper blog this week about the regional theatre movement, which she fears has crept away from its noble artistic roots in pursuit of audiences and revenue. We’ve been down this road many times, of course, but Diane always manages to add perspective and depth to such discussions, and in this case she’s sparked a conversation that’s truly fascinating to read.
As a marketing professional, I don’t concern myself much with the art vs. commerce debate. It’s been going on as long as I’ve been in the arts and it’s likely to continue long after I’m gone. What I do care about, though, is the effect this discourse has on audience development and Diane’s post reveals an industry attitude that I believe is pure new audience poison. To support her thesis she quotes Zelda Fichandler, who said:
“Nobody was looking for us, peering through the window, watching for us to come to relieve the boredom and unawareness of their lives. It was we who had to teach and persuade them to want what we wanted to give them. And we had to insist on it for their own good, but, really, for our own, if we were honest enough to admit that. … Nobody called us, but we came.”
Then, after repeating the same Fichandler quote, she adds this little gem from Taylor Mac:
“We are here to give people what they need, not what they want.”
I gotta tell ya, as someone who’s spent the bulk of his career engaging with and advocating on behalf of ordinary audiences, reading these quotes made my stomach turn. The presumption is shocking and the condescension is so insulting that I find it hard to believe any arts professional would perpetuate such sentiments let alone defend them on moral grounds. Is it any wonder that new audiences are running in the opposite direction when elite arts insiders continue to talk like this?
Fichandler may have believed that she was rescuing bored and unaware Washingtonians when she arrived to “shape their process of living,” but the reality is that when she and her peers established regional theaters they were satisfying a pent up demand in the marketplace for serious theatre. In the middle of the last century there were plenty of literate, educated, affluent consumers who wanted the kind of theatre that regional theatre artists wanted to make and sell. It wasn’t a triumph of art over commerce, it was a simple matter of demand and supply being, for a time, well balanced. And the subsequent creep away from founding missions that Diane so eloquently laments may have been more of a natural, necessary, appropriate response to evolving market conditions.
We can probably forgive the founders of the regional theatre movement for being presumptuous and condescending because they emerged in a broader culture that, to a large extent, agreed with their point of view, and because they had a solid base of consumer support to back up their claims. But today, there is no such cultural consensus and the simple fact is that regional theatres need audiences more than audiences need them. You can’t sustain an institution by trying to give people what you think they need if the need is questionable and the people don’t already want it. The regional theatre movement couldn’t do today what it did in the middle of the last century because the market doesn’t contain enough demand for the products it wants to sell.
As for the effect this type of thinking has on audience development, the problem with the “you need us because we know what’s good for you” attitude that still lingers – and still shapes the way theatres talk to the world around them – is that it encourages us to speak to our constituents as if they’re bored, unaware, lesser beings who are waiting for people like us to brighten up their humdrum little lives. It’s why, some sixty years later, arts marketing is still comprised almost entirely of self-centered, self-important, self-congratulatory bombast, and it’s why new audiences, who are neither bored nor unaware, find us so unpersuasive.
I know that Diane was arguing for a return to core values, but some of those values may be inappropriate and possibly even detrimental to our current situation. If I were trying to make such an argument, I’d avoid the Zelda Fichandler quotes (which should probably be quietly retired to the Arena Stage archives) and opt for a more audience-centric set of foundational assumptions that goes something like this:
We are not better than the people we serve. We need to learn from the people in our communities how to create art that resonates with their needs and desires. We understand that audience members are fully realized human beings with stimulating lives full of attractive choices, and that our job is to convince them that our products are among the best choices they can make because they offer the greatest personal rewards. We must strive for the greatest common good by working with people in our communities to find the place where art and audiences come together most productively, and we must remain constantly aware of, and be prepared to respond to, changing tastes, attitudes and understandings in the marketplace.