Image from TCG's blog post, presumably from Theatre en Bloc's AUSTIN IS A PLACE (you are here)

Image from TCG’s blog post, presumably from Theatre en Bloc’s AUSTIN IS A PLACE (you are here)

Have to admit I was a little skeptical when I started reading this TCG blog post “Front of House: Take Care of Your Audience No Matter the Space.” The second paragraph starts

Our audience is the most important part of our work. They are our focus: the final and most vital piece to any theatrical endeavor. Not only does our art have to be relevant to our audience, the whole evening must be crafted around their best interest.

Because I am too quick to show my cynical eye-rolling skills, my “oh come on, whatever” synapsis started firing. But then I read the next sentence

Making great experiences for patrons is what inevitably will help retain audiences for years to come.

Wait a second.

I believe that too. [inner “model leader” gives my “cynical eye-roller” a gentle disapproving shake of the head]

I encourage you to read through Jenny Lavery‘s* description of the tactics her company Theatre en Bloc used. And if you can’t at this moment, at least take in the last paragraph

Creating a welcoming and warm front of house experience can be done in any space, on any budget. It takes a detailed plan that speaks to your audience, your space, and the piece of art. Using the same high quality art standards on all patron-related areas, makes patrons feel welcomed, cared for, and appreciated.

It’s true.

*Disclaimer: Discovered Jenny has an education background. Now I know why I like what she has to say so much.

Part of a series I am am collaborating on with the assistance of Melanie Harker and Kate Ahern Loveric under the stewardship of Howl Round / Center for the Theater Commons.

This is post “2.3”—What is our perception of ensemble-theaters and the role of audience?

ABEF Perceptions

Part of a series I am collaborating on with the assistance of Melanie Harker and Kate Ahern Loveric under the stewardship of Howl Round / Center for the Theater Commons.

This is post “2.2”—How do we define four key terms—theater, ensemble, audience, and engagement?

(Note: a full turn around the circle would me 100% of responses contained this element or category.)

ABEF Terms

Part of a series I am collaborating on with the assistance of Melanie Harker and Kate Ahern Loveric under the stewardship of Howl Round / Center for the Theater Commons.

This is the second post in a regular column exploring the junctions of ensemble theater and audience, my two paths, or rather passions, in life. I’m journeying to the convergence points of multiple paths, many previously traversed, armed with this question: how can investigating the crossover between disparate spheres provide fresh perspectives, possibly new insights? See the first post here.

And when I say “second post” I really mean the second series of posts. Inspired somewhat by the wisely-naive and endlessly-curious character Dory from Finding Nemo, I created A Big Eyed Fish (ABEF) in order to investigate every nook and cranny of the bowl I swim in, as well as the oceans beyond, for new discoveries. The logical place to start was with definitions and assumptions about the art-artists-audience triangulation. My ABEF collaborator Melanie Harker and I shaped a series of questions on Ensemble Theaters & Audience Definitions meant to be a pulse-check or a survey of the landscape. Our goals were not to draw consensus, but to highlight the many similarities and many, many differences in this collection of aggregated people, practices, and perceptions. Melanie and I then worked with our third ABEF collaborator Kate Ahern Loveric to develop a series of infographics to capture and convey the collected data. Stay tuned for more infographics later this week!

This is post “2.1”—Who participated in this poll?

Infograph: Who Participated?

The initial three source texts for dog & pony dc’s next show, Toast, include Steven Johnson‘s Where Good Ideas Come From. Recommended to me by friend and, now, Toast ensemble member David LaCroix, I pass the recommend on as a wellspring of inspiration about how ideas are birthed, cultivated, promoted, and transformed into life-altering inventions and movements. Today I was struck soundly by one of the final passages, which compares types of “platforms” (read: environments) that cultivate innovation. Still wrestling with what my metaphor is, but I know the below passage gets at why I encourage in collaborative or ensemble work.

“Generative platforms require all the patterns of innovation we have seen over the proceding pages; they need to create a space where hunches and serendipitous collisions and exaptations and recycling can thrive. it is possible to create such a space in a walled garden. But you are far better off situating your platform in a commons.

But perhaps “commons” is the wrong word for the environment we’re trying to imagine, though it has a long and sanctified history in intellectual property law. The problem with the term is twofold. For starters, it has conventionally been used in opposition to the competition struggle of the marketplace. The original “commons” of rural England disappeared when they were swallowed up by the private enclosures of agrarian capitalism in the 16th and 18th centuries. Yet the innovation environments we have explores are not necessarily hostile to competition and profit. More important, however, the commons metaphor doesn’t suggest the patterns of recycling and exaptation and recombination that define so many innovation spaces. When you think of a commons, you think of a cleared field dominated by a single source of grazing. You don’t think of an ecosystem. The commons is a monocrop grassland, not a tangled bank.

reefI prefer another metaphor drawn from nature: the reef.

You need only survey a coral reef (or a rain forest) for a fewminutes to see that competition for resources abouts in this space, as Darwin rightly observed. But that is not the source of its marvelous biodiversity. The struggle for existence is universal in nature. The few residents of a desert ecosystem are every bit as competitive as their equivalents on a coral reef. What makes the treef so inventive is not the struggle between the organism but the way they have learned to collaborate–the coral and the zooxanthellae and the parrotfish borrowing and reinventing each other’s work. This is the ultimate explanation of Darwin’s Paradox: the reef has unlocked so many doors of the adjacent possible because of the way it shares.

The reef helps us understand the other riddles we begin with: the runaway innovation of citities, and of the Web. They, too, are environments that compulsively connect and remix that most valuable of resources: information. Like the Web, the city is a platform that often makes private commerce possible but which is itself outside the marketplace. You do business in the big city, but the city itself belongs to everyone. (“City air is free air,” as the old saying goes.) Ideas collide, emerge, recombine; new enterprises find homes in the shells abandoned by earlier hosts; informal hubs allow different disciplines to borrow from one another. These are the spaces that have long supported innovation, from those first Mesopotamian settlements 8,000 years ago to the invisible layers of software that support today’s Web.

Ideas rise in crowds, as Poincare said. They rise in liquid networks where connection is valued more than protection. So if we want to build environments that generate good ideas…we need to keep that history in mind, and not fall back on the easy assumptions that competitive markets are the only reliable source of good ideas. Yes, the market has been a great engine of innovation. But so has the reef.”

- Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, pg 244 – 245

This is the first post in a series I am am collaborating on with the assistance of Melanie Harker and Kate Ahern Loveric under the stewardship of Howl Round / Center for the Theater Commons. Posts on A Big Eyed Fish will inevitably wrestle with related topics, questions, and musings, but those which are part of the official “series” (like this one) will also appear here.  -rg

Robert Frost famously professed the benefits, when approaching a point of divergence in a journey, of taking the road “less traveled by.” Yet: I’ve found the travels that made all the difference for me have been on roads created from the convergence of multiple paths, merging snakelike into one another. The goal isn’t to explore undiscovered terrain, but the intersection of lands (supposedly) already traversed. How can investigating the crossover between disparate spheres provide fresh perspectives, possibly new insights?

Armed with this question, I enter into a year-long quest exploring the junctions of my two paths, or rather passions, in life: ensemble theater and audience.

I possess a self-described “healthy obsession” with the triangulation of art, artist, and audience. In other words—I am endlessly fascinated with the relationships formed around a work of theater by artists and audiences. This fascination guides, even “dictates,” everything in my career as a theater artist, producer, and administrator. Luckily I found people to share this obsession with: the eleven other company members of dog & pony dc and the host of artists with whom we collaborate.

d&pdc is an ensemble-based company in Washington, DC focused on devising performances that provide audiences new ways of experiencing theater. We weren’t audience-fixated at first. d&pdc was initially founded as an ensemble company focused on remixing classical texts into contemporary performances. My two co-founders and I wanted to increase collaboration between all the players in the theatrical production—producers/administrators, artists, and audience. We believed ensemble-based collaboration would not only create stronger, more complex productions, but it would amp up the intensity and immediacy of shows in performance.

Over the course of a handful of productions, the audience experience quickly emerged as d&pdc’s raison d’etre. We had always wanted our shows—whether original works or productions of previously written scripts—to shake up the stagnant theater-going experience, aiming never to take the audience’s presence for granted. With every show we were inclined to increase the audience’s agency and participation: first we acknowledged the audience’s presence; then we casually interacted with them; then we moved them around the theater; invited them to create their own characters; requested (almost required) they perform with us—literally assigning the audience parts integral to the show’s narrative arc. We came to view the audience as our final collaborator in shaping productions; so much so that the company and board almost immediately came to agreement at our annual retreat last year that one of our defining values is “the audience completes our ensemble.” Our collaborative, ensemble process transitioned to becoming the means to our “audience integration” ends.

When d&pdc began dialoging at the national level we were surprised by how broad and inclusive our definition of “ensemble” was in comparison with our colleagues. While we don’t operate at the “consensus” end of the collaboration spectrum, we value transparency and inclusivity at all points in the production process from all participants and the audiences’ experience is the central component of our devising process. As we plan our company’s organizational development and artistic growth, we’re trying to figure out—where do we fit into the spectrum of ensemble theater? What can we learn from our colleagues? What do we have to share? How can we make stronger work? And, most importantly, how can we alter artists’ and audiences’ expectations for theatrical events in DC and the country? 

I see myself as an artist of two “types”: 1) a maker of theatrical experiences that are conversational in nature, and 2) a maker of interpretive opportunities around performances that build community. As much as my devising, directing, and performing is affected by my art-artist-audience, so too is my interest in engagement initiatives. My enthusiasm ignited quietly and smoldered throughout a twelve-year career in arts education and community-arts projects in regional theater.. It fully manifested and unleashed during my time at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company leading the conceptualization and launching of their “connectivity” innovation. I served as the first Connectivity Director at a critical point in the emergence of the “audience engagement” field in regional theaters: social media became mainstream, “marketing departments” widely began reframing as “engagement departments,” and dramaturg-led audience engagement activities (e.g. post-show discussions) peaked in popularity.

At Woolly, I submerged myself in shaping systems that would allow the theater to harness the power of its art and the resources of its city to reposition theater itself as a center of discourse. I sought to develop processes that would be repeatable and yet yield results unique to each production, and involve many voices (staff, artists, current audience, future/potential audience, community members with a stake in the conversation shows teed-up). But as engagement became a leading buzzword, it remained almost exclusively on the lips and in the minds of administrators—and select administrators at that. In the past few years the conversation about audience and their engagement with and around the art has not been dominated by the artists making the work or the audience that takes it in. This feels like playing a football game without your receivers, most of the coaching staff, and another team.

What are the lines of communication between artists, arts leaders, and audiences? Why are artists/leaders making the art that they do? How is this vision translating to shared sense of purpose in organizations? With audiences?  With connection to communities?

One + Two = ?
At the 2012 TCG conference, Howard Shalwitz examined the “innovative” concept of a shared sense of purpose around productions in American theater, making a case for increased collaboration between artists and institutions in play development and productions. Ensemble-based companies responded to the resulting benefits Shalwitz listed with a fairly resounding “but of course! it’s why we chose this method of creation.”

I am curious: do ensemble-based companies have this shared sense of purpose? They are primed and inclined toward artistic collaboration and exchange already, aren’t they? But who is involved in the production process and at what stage (particularly for devising ensembles)? How does process affect project? What is the relationship between the makers and the receivers, the artist and audience? (Is there one?) How do your “art,” “artist,” and “audience” triangulate?

As I seek to define the uncharted land dog & pony dc has inhabited, I need to survey the vast landscape around me—to learn about the transitioning relationships between ensemble companies, the communities they’re based in, their impetus for creating, the people they create for, the manner in which they shape their experiences, and how all of this ultimately impacts the work they make. For myself and for my ensemble, beyond naming my healthy obsession with the triangulation of art-artist-audience as an ensemble theater maker, I must interrogate and share.

Care to help me on my journey?

Take five minutes to complete my Ensemble Theater & Audience Definitions Poll here.