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How to Build a Better Mousetrap: On Creating an Audience For New Work

NOTE: Integrating new, experimental work into the repertoire of established theaters is an ongoing problem, fueled in part by the fear that the loyal if slightly nebulous “subscriber audience” will be lost. The following letter was written by Jeffrey M. Jones to a prominent colleague—not named “Bob”—concerned about producing such work and developing the audiences to appreciate it. His thoughts on the topic strike us as applicable to all New York and regional theater establishments.

Dear Bob:

I’ve been thinking a good deal about the problem you posed—partly of course because it hits close to home, but even more because in posing it you reminded me, once again, that it’s a problem for which theatres generally and collectively seem to have found no workable solution even now, 40 years down the non-profit road. And this, surely, is rather remarkable.

The problem isn’t that audiences will only go so far; but that—in theatre, at least—they seem unwilling to go much of anywhere at all—except where they have already been.

This, rightly, is recognized by theatres and artists as a paralyzing condition which is bad for all concerned, especially theatres and artists. If major theatre institutions cannot include the new, or can only include it so incrementally as to be imperceptible, they are thereby consigned to a state of profound conservatism; which is why even those with little personal appetite for radical work find the prospect of being unable to present it troubling.

Is it possible that theatre is necessarily constrained? Is this why the Problem of New Work is typically expressed as bafflement verging on truculence: “Can it really be true?” is followed by “Is that all there is?” yielding to “Maybe that’s just how it is. Anybody got a better idea?”

Perhaps part of the problem lies in the framing of the problem. As long as the question is framed as “How can I or you or anyone solve our problem? How can anyone get an audience to accept and like new, challenging work?” the cycle of frustration is necessarily perpetuated simply because nobody knows the answer. Perhaps a more useful framing might be, “Has anybody else been faced with this problem and managed to solve it?”

Because once the problem is posed in this fashion, the relevant example that springs to mind is the experience of the visual arts in our country.

I am old enough to remember when educated Americans were still able to claim, in print and for attribution, that Modernism (by which they meant an undifferentiated grab-bag of styles ranging over 75 years, more-or-less centered around the idea of “Picasso”) was a “fraud,” that it was something “a 6 year-old child could do better.” Today nobody could make that claim. Nobody, that is, who wasn’t prepared to be dismissed as an ignoramus or cultural provocateur. And the reason isn’t mysterious. Wander into any blockbuster modernist exhibit, and you will find little old gray-haired ladies wandering through the galleries nattering on about “the flatness of the picture-plane.” Once little old gray-haired ladies feel comfortable discussing the flatness of the picture plane, you can’t tell them abstract art is simply the work of 6 year-olds.

Now I learned about the flatness of the picture plane as an Art History major in college; how on earth did the G-HL’s come by it? No mystery here, either: they rented a headset in the lobby and so they could hear Philippe de Montebello tell them exactly where and what the “flatness of the picture plane” was, and why it mattered so terribly. They were, in other words, taught to use a few terms and concepts—just as I was, just as Philippe de Montebello was—the very process Robert Hughes described in The Shock of the New. By virtue of having a way to discuss the work, they were automatically able to “understand” it. And lo and behold, the scales fell from their eyes and they saw...

The visual arts have put a great deal of effort and energy in disseminating a core set of terms and ideas by which the “difficult” stuff can be discussed and understood, and not surprisingly their halls are a-swarm with G-HLs and younger folk doing just that. Theatre, unless I have been missing something, has spent almost no effort or energy in defining, let alone disseminating, similar tools with which to appreciate new plays. And I believe even the G-HLs aren’t subscribing like they used to.

No museum of any size would mount a show without a catalog. And while those catalogs may sell on the basis of the souvenir value of the reproductions they contain, or the cocktail-table value of the book itself, the actual purpose of the catalog is to provide an essay which directly rebuts those old objections of fraud and technical incompetence. One need not read the catalog (I suspect hardly anyone does); the catalog does its essential work merely by existing. It raises the bar of the discourse; it sets the tone and chooses the weaponry. One cannot impugn (let alone reject out of hand) the art on the walls without going through the catalog. The catalog insists that you can only respond, if you even dare to do so, on its own terms.

The result has been a triumphal campaign for mass acceptance of the visual arts—a campaign echoed if not quite matched by similar efforts on behalf of symphonic music, the novel and poetry. Which is why I humbly suggest that if little old gray-haired ladies can be taught to “read” Pollock and de Kooning and Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter and Dan Flavin and Donald Judd and John Currin (because even figurative art dare not go without a bodyguard today), they can surely be taught to “read” Mac Wellman and Jeff Jones and Suzan-Lori Parks and Melissa James Gibson and even stranger, wilder creatures.

Here is another true story: Years ago, the Wooster Group was invited to remount Rumstick Road at the American Place after its original run downtown. [Artistic Director] Wynn Handman thought he could serve it up to his subscription audience. As you can imagine, I heard nothing but horror stories from my buddies in the Group—how almost as soon as the lights went down the audience started to get up and leave, continuing out in a steady stream until by the end there was hardly anyone left.

Imagine, then, my surprise upon attending a Wednesday matinee (!) to find a crowd of fashionable middle-aged ladies not only sitting through the thing but obviously having a good time. This was so against expectation that I had to seek an answer. It turned out they were a theatre group from Westchester whose leader had given them a little orientation on the bus ride down.

The palpable pleasure these women derived from watching and “getting” the show—a pleasure indeed compounded both of enjoying the show on its own terms and feeling the self-congratulation which comes of “getting” something you’ve been told is “hard” and “difficult”—sprang entirely from the following “explanation”:

That Rumstick Road a) was a piece about a mother’s suicide, which b) was made by a younger generation of artists who c) had a lot of technology and media in their lives (hence all the tape recordings and slide projections and aggressive scoring) and d) watched a lot of television and liked to switch channels all the time (hence the disjunctive and associative structure of the piece.)

That’s all. Yet that simple and reductive explanation was enough to give the matinee ladies enough confidence to face Rumstick Road with the expectation that they would understand and recognize what the artists were doing. Sure enough: the lights went down and there were all the tape recorders and the slide projections and the loud blaring music and the mention of the mother’s suicide and the jump cuts between the scenes. And afterwards, the women were so happy they practically cut each other off mid-sentence trying to tell me how they enjoyed the show so much because it unfolded just they way they knew it was going to.

This fulfillment of an expectation, their recognition of what they had been told to look for—was the sum and the substance of their happiness. Rumstick Road, they now understood as they discussed it, was simply the kind of show their own kids might have made had they been living in the wilds of Wooster Street, and as for the rest of it—well, who can every really understand what one’s own kids are thinking?

So, now back to the problem you pose to me. You have a theatre devoted to new plays; you have a commitment to try to use it for something other than the re-presentation of the kinds of plays which are already known and, moreover, you have financial resources and a constituency with a proven interest in contemporary arts and theatre. But the problem, the old intractable problem still looms and threatens: Can you hope to pull it off? Can anyone make this stuff “work”?

And I say “yes”—as long as you follow the path and precedent of the visual arts. To wit:

1) Accept and present the Enterprise as Smart Fun. Theatre is so afraid of seeming “elitist” that it often pretends to be dumber than it really is, then tries to mend the damage by claiming that somehow, within its precincts, the “challenging” becomes “accessible.” Which is nothing but a fiddle, and the audience knows that it’s a fiddle too, leaving all parties a little embarrassed.

Is there really any reason not to appeal to intelligence—or at least, to the level of intelligence which is assumed, say, by the New Yorker or the New York Times Book Review? Surely there is an audience who will want to see bold, weird, new and unusual work—so long as it comes with the proviso that they will be provided with everything they need to understand and discuss what is happening at the forefront of theatre.

2) The Enterprise is not the work; the Enterprise is creating the context for the work. Because the context is even more important than the work itself, and this is true even at the Performing Garage and the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. When you go to see LeCompte or Foreman, your experience stands or falls by what you make of Foreman or LeCompte. The piece itself—the actual lines spoken and actions performed on stage, the “content” if you will—is always understood to be secondary if not irrelevant. It is the context you propose to establish, and that you are asking your audience to attend.

3) Therefore: The context specifically must be, and be known to be, about providing ways to read and understand and discuss the work. Frankly, I would not spend money on the scenery before spending enough to commission serious and substantive critical essays by smart, literate thinkers. Publish all these essays in a big fat catalog called the Program; make sure this 50-page booklet winds up in the hands of everyone who buys a ticket.

These essays need to be top-drawer, high-powered, literate criticism—which doesn’t mean they can’t be fun and snarky and even perhaps a little heavy-going from time to time. Because like the museum catalog, they are setting the terms of the discourse. I’m not suggesting anything approaching the current excesses of MLA; plain English, finely wrought, will suffice. But the writing must show evidence of original thought, and it cannot, ever, excuse or plead or truckle.

Imagine a season which culminated in a combined catalog, now of book-length form, containing essays by the likes of Susan Sontag and Luc Sante and Dom DeLillo and Marjorie Garber and Tony Kushner and Joyce Carol Oates and Michael Chabon and Paula Vogel and Daniel Mendelsohn. Wouldn’t it be clear to a reasonable audience that something very important is going on, and that the Enterprise is pretty darn cool?

Jeffrey M. Jones is the author of 70 Scenes of Halloween, Nightcoil, Tomorrowland, a series of Crazy Plays, Write if You Get Work, and J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation, a musical with a score by the late Jonathan Larson. The Undermain Theatre production of his most recent play, A Man’s Best Friend, will open in New York in February, 2005.


Jeffrey M. Jones

JEFFREY M. JONES is an artist and playwright.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2004

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