I love Oscar Hammerstein II; this is a sliver of lyric from "Me And Juliet" --- a back-stage Rodgers & Hammerstein musical I often think no one else ever saw but me. It's Oscar down to the toenails, and it describes the very last individual cast in any stage production: The Audience.
In every way, the audience is always a participant in the show, acting with the actors in an ever-new way. That interplay of live show with live audience is the thing --- not present in television, movie, novel or radio-play --- that makes Theatre unique.
In his play "Undine" Jean Giraudoux has a Master of Revels explain that every theatre has been built to house only One Play; it's his job, by trial and error, to find out which. And that metaphor is equally apt when thinking of an Artistic Director's search for the kind of productions that will bring a particular kind of audience back to his company again and again.
Some places, here in and around Boston, seem to me to have solved this mystery: the audience, on any given night, will look at the same time like every other, but every other audience Unique to that particular company or that particular space. Some theatres have found their audience; some are still searching.
The best example of this wedding of company with audience is the Stoneham Theatre. In this suburban town only a quarter-hour away from Downtown Boston, the plays they do reach out into a community of families --- and they try to touch each age-level in those families. No other local company has such a robust program of classes and productions that include children, from very young through high-school, in doing hands-on work on- and back-stage. In that way, in a sense, Stoneham is literally growing its audience up from the roots. And --- as many Community Theatres have discovered --- every production featuring young local people automatically attracts an audience of local parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and classmates; and these "friends of the performers" often give un-critical, supportive, positive reactions to work by people still learning their craft.
The best audience for any play, I think, is people who have worked, in some capacity, on shows. A little knowledge about that 9/10ths of the theatrical iceberg which is the work that never shows onstage can only add to an audience's appreciation of what does show --- and by involving so much of the community's youth in theatre-making, Stoneham is building theatre's audience of the future --- in Stoneham and elsewhere.
But they involve the other end of the age-spectrum as well: they attract older people with enough free time and still lively minds to give an occasional evening to the very important job of being friendly ushers. These regulars feel uniquely a part of the company, and involve their personalities with the work they do. And they can talk to friends and family after seeing shows about what they saw and felt, and why.
Of course, in a small suburban town without a local college, there may be an often refreshing lack of sophistication; kids used to cell-phone twitter, and parents or retirees with free time only with television, may not want --- or need --- "Hamlet" or "Lear" or the musical version of "The Adding-Machine". And doing everything on a limited budget means satisfying an audience while perhaps expanding its horizons a little and whetting an appetite. And here, for those who DO find a need for more challenging work, all of Boston is only a quarter-hour away.
In Boston, one of the brightest examples of satisfied audiences involves not a company, but a place: The Factory Theatre.
The official address for it is 791 Tremont Street --- which is a lie. The theatre is just a two-story red-brick box with a capacity of 48 seats in an old, abandoned Pickering Piano Factory that decades ago was turned into affordable-housing and studio-spaces for artists, and that's the street address of the building's main entrance. However, you get to The Factory THEATRE by walking around the corner to Northampton Street, in the middle of which is a parking-lot; up in the middle of that space, down a few steps in a back-door to The Factory, is the true entrance.
The Factory Theatre is the essence of "fringy-ness"; for decades, under the ownership of a series of small companies, the space has been rented by most every struggling young small company that's worked in this city. And, since this has made it the bedrock of such small endeavors, young actors and young companies are eager to work there --- and "the usual suspects" on any opening- or pay-what-you-can-night consist of people from other companies lending support. The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston was probably hatched one night in this very brick box.
Since a big percentage of the Factory audience are "professional" in the commitment rather than the financial sense, it is usually critical yet not judgmental of the work. The people who Make theatre Like theatre, and wish other makers every success possible. On these fringes, people easily float from company to company, schmooze and network in intermissions, and give themselves to Seeing plays as freely and wholeheartedly as they do to Making them. That aspect alone makes the Factory unique.
So does its size. While it's true that in that space no actor can hide, no audience can hide either. With serious emotion playing out right in your lap, distance is impossible --- and many "civilians" seek out the Factory for exactly that experience.
And that is in sharp contrast to the experience given the audience for what most Bostonians think of as the only theatre in town, or at least the only theatre locally worth paying any attention to: "Broadway in Boston". This can be found almost exclusively in houses with balconies --- occasionally with two of them. This is expensive professional theatre because only that can reach the last rows of second-balconies and convince people, who've paid sixty dollars --- or a hundred, or two hundred --- to sit in orchestra seats, that what they're seeing was really worth the money.
Almost everything on these stages basks in a glory reflected from not Boston but New York --- these shows come through Boston, or set up shop here, either trailing reviews and word-of-mouth from a run in The Apple, or insisting that the audience is getting a glimpse from a pre-Broadway tryout of what New Yorkers will soon be talking about. In that sense, this audience often expects not to experience a play --- or more likely a musical --- but to be a part of History. "It must be Good, it's so expensive!" This is the audience that wants mugs and t-shirts and to get their pictures taken so they can brag to friends about what they've seen --- and how much they paid for it.
Again, contrast these with the audience at The Lyric Stage of Boston (Inc.) --- who can mouth along with Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos his genuine pride in "the actors, designers, directors and theatre professionals who live and work right here in Boston!" This is a group who enjoy questioning and talking to the people who made the show at Sunday matinee's. Unlike houses with balconies (the only ones that can meet expenses solely with box-office receipts), mid-size houses like the Lyric, the New Rep, SpeakEasy Stage and Company One have to scramble for donations and grants --- and they must satisfy and astonish a fluid and often fickle audience reluctant to subscribe to only one sort of show. The base for each one of these companies is willing to try new things, because whatever they've seen in the past was worth the money, and the time. But sold-out houses are rare everywhere, and balancing the new with the classic is always a dangerous art.
The newest audience here is the one that's moved back into "The Theatre District" --- but on Washington Street rather than the Boylston/Tremont Street complex. Here, cheek-by-jowl with Broadway in Boston's Boston Opera House, Emerson university's Metropolitan Theatre Complex and Suffolk University's Modern Theatre --- both of them rebuilt and re-animated old Boston theatre buildings --- have sought out audiences eager to experience the rare, the new, the experimental and the international in theatrical experiences. Runs are rarely more than one week long, but most companies come with international reputations and solid intellectual pretensions that are certainly worth talking about.
Okay, the Stoneham's audience is not the Metropolitan's audience, and few of them might be comfortable at the Factory or the BCA, at the Boston Conservatory or the Wang Center. It isn't quite true that "It's all Theatre after all, isn't it?" But the jury's probably still out on the score of audience "exchange-ability". There are more than 93 different companies performing plays inside the city limits of Boston alone, each one serving up a slightly different experience for a core crew of subscribers and devotees, and the occasional newcomer. Each one of these different audiences probably know little or nothing about any of the others, and expendable income these days is scarce everywhere.
But the existence, side by side at the same time, of so many unique audiences for stuff done live on stage suggests that perhaps Some audience fluidity might take place if only people knew how much theatre there is available. And the existence of unique audiences suggests a new approach to criticism. I mean, instead of determining how far from (or close to) possible perfection a production of a play comes, perhaps it would be much more useful if the critics asked instead "What sort of audience ought to see this play?"
It's worth a try, isn't it?
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" 'SHOWTIME' A REVIEW"
Late last year, a book-reviewer friend sent me a paperbound "Advance reading copy --- not for sale" of one of the best books about theater I have ever read. I lived with it for about a week over the year's-end holidays and it was the first book I finished in 2011. Even as a paperback it's a couple pounds, and I've been promising myself an attempt at reviewing it ever since I finished its last paragraph. Amazon lists a discount on the hardbound W.W.NORTON book --- but I'll bet that hardback would be so big and heavy as to be unreadable. That said, it IS exceptionally readable, informative on every page, and an indispensible experience for anyone who truly loves theater.
Thursday, 16 August, 2007 12:40 p m - 12:55 p m:
"Why I Won't Review 'Miss Saigon'
@ Company Theatre"
Friday, 2 March, 2007 3:25 a m:
"A Tale Of Three AUDIENCES"
Wednesday, 1 November, 2006 1:56 p m: "Maps"
Thursday, 17 August, 2006 1:02 p m: "The Death of A Dream"
Thursday, 11 May, 2006 11:53 a m: "For Only ELEVEN DOLLARS A WEEK ... !!!"
"Tuesday, 4 April, 2006 12:09 a m: "Kati Vs. The Critics"
Thursday, 29 December, 2005 9:00 p m: "The 'BESTS' Time of The Year"
Thursday, 27 October, 2005 1:52 p m: "Odds & Ends"
12 November, 2005 "The Art of Writing [And READING] Reviews"
"What happened in Boston, LARRY?"