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The Business of Changing People’s Lives

March 25, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: In a Perfect World, Teachable Moments

I normally feel eeeeeeecky after cross-posting something I wrote elsewhere, but around the time when we were revving up for the ol’ value blogathon last week, I wrote a draft at the New Leaf Blog that ended up really summing up a great deal of big and small thoughts I had about Tony’s Critiquing the critics project, the complex dynamics of an experiment that isn’t an experiment theater-as-tribe lab at New Leaf while producing a show that we both love and has received mixed reviews, and what it takes to draw success from a work that few people frankly end up seeing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the post had some resonance with the structural issues of theater I’ve been talking about here, and it’s a hard-and-fast example of why theater is valuable to both artist and audience, and also why that value is usually hidden. It was kind of a personal exploration of where the company and where the show is at right now, mid-run, so I didn’t end up publishing it until tonight, but you can read it in its entirety here. It was a biggy for me.

Here’s an excerpt, enjoy:

It’s always a shock to the system when you live through the same events as someone else and as you look back, they somehow have a completely different experience than your own.

The most difficult and scary part about producing theater – especially newer works – is that we have almost no means of controlling the exact narrative the audience walks away with – we have the collaborative process, and the clarity that (sometimes) comes with a well-defined artistic concept. With classics, there’s often decades or hundreds of years of established narrative that focuses attention on your specific production. In recorded and published media, the audience is allowed to go back, and reexamine, and in some cases find the “correct” interpretation intended by the artist. In theater, there are no second chances to re-examine and realign the audience’s experience. The story that played out in the audience’s head and heart, inspired by the events and actions you put on stage, is the story that actually happened. Of course we’re all living through the same events, but in some cases, we as artists don’t often get the feedback of finding out what that exact story was.

We’ve been talking on the [New Leaf] blog how we, as individuals, remember the last moment of our childhood, and in an odd, circuitous way, that ongoing narrative has become something equally momentous – I think that Goldfish Bowl marks the end of New Leaf’s childhood as a company. The emerging narrative from our string of reviews is that Goldfish Bowl is an intelligent and at the same time confusing play. We’ve been recognized in these reviews for consistently producing challenging work well, and taken to task for not drawing focus to elements of the play that we’ve found less vital to our mission as a company.

In many ways, this critical narrative doesn’t jive with how we see ourselves (tale as old as time, right?), and yet it’s the narrative that we must now move forward with through the rest of the run. Now it’s the narrative that our audience may be bringing with them as they walk in the theater, and it’s a narrative we are unable to address now that rehearsals are long over. A young theater company will complain when someone doesn’t “get” the play, because they don’t fully realize how important the audience’s given narrative is. An older theater company realizes that the purpose of a show isn’t simply about getting an audience to ‘accurately’ interpret your production – it’s about resonance, those moments that stick with you for much longer than the two hours you sit in the theater. It’s about tricking moments of clarity and self-reflection out of your audience, even if those moments are wildly unrelated to the show. It’s about providing an ideal setting for reflection, and sometimes that setting requires stepping back and not over-conceptualizing a script. That reflection is the gold that we’re mining for in this work – it is the mechanism of renewal.

Jared [Moore, Lighting Designer]’s comments clarified my own feelings on the subject: You have to let the narrative happen. The audience’s ability – your ability – to form your own narrative over and through our story is what allows you as a member of the audience to have ownership of our work. It makes the audience part of the creative team, and in many ways the audience has always been the most fundamental part of the creative team. That’s what makes theater different. Audiences may rarely understand the specifics of what I had in mind when I create a design, but that doesn’t have to be a discouraging thing — because what they do find is something that they had lost and they need again – a memory, an emotion, a moment unlocked and treasured.We cannot control how other people see our work, and yes, that’s often frustrating, and to be candid, a source of fear and trepidation. But without that dichotomy of interpretation, there’s no surprise, doubt, disagreement, and reconnection. There’s no dialogue between artist and audience, and no conversation as you walk home from the theater. As we often say at New Leaf – those are the moments where a great theater company gets you hooked.

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4 Comments to “The Business of Changing People’s Lives”


  1. and yet it’s the narrative that we must now move forward with through the rest of the run. Now it’s the narrative that our audience may be bringing with them as they walk in the theater, and it’s a narrative we are unable to address now that rehearsals are long over.

    I wonder about this. I recall Chris Jones writing a review of a Hypocrites show where he discussed at length his admiration for Sean Graney’s retooling of Angels in America, Part II after the show had already opened. The etiquette I’ve experienced, for lack of a better word, is that one shouldn’t give notes or tweak after the show has officially opened, that the director’s work is officially “done” as of the moment audiences have begun to pay full price to see the work. And I can understand the way it needlessly increases the stress level of the production for a director to hover over the show, trying to fix this and that, but in some cases I feel like we may have gone too far to the other end of the spectrum…decided that the process is over and that the director is therefore expendable at that point.

    Yes, there are often moments when the critical narrative flies completely off-base (I recall, in particular, a certain critic who made editorial suggestions about The Permanent Way that would have rendered Hare’s whole reason for writing the play irrelevant), but there are also moments when the critic finds something that is not only incisive and correct, but also can be fixed.

    However, in the current paradigm, even if we find that comment to be convincing, often I’ll see the production shrug their shoulders–“oh well, this is the way we’ve directed it, if it’s wrong, it’s too late to change it.” Why?

    I’m not sure if this is really what you’re getting at, although I will say that the other thing that struck me about the relationship between the critic and the production is how part of the problem is that the critic is often responding in the moment via their notebook or via the words they’re writing in their head to be polished later. In other words, they’re not necessarily experiencing the narrative the way you’re telling it. The average audience member is there to listen, the critic is there to talk back.

    But most theatre is built to show-and-tell, not show-and-tell-and-debate.

    We often complain that critics miss or outright misrepresent certain details in their write-ups, but why bother? The nature of their job requires that they spend half of the production silently talking over the story; they don’t have the luxury to take it in because they’re on deadline and the more work they get done during the show the better it is for them.

    Sucks for you, though. But you’re not their problem.

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  2. Sometimes shows really aren’t a good as we think they are. Sometimes they’re better than some critics think they are. But who says the narrative ends on opening night? I think that’s a problem we all face, not just with critics and directors but with most aspects of what is typically done:

    Lights go down–silence. Lights come up, “thank you for coming”–silence.

    Is there a possibility for a conversation?

    Funny you mention the Critiquing the Critics series. It’s by far the most widely read thing I do, but also by far the least amount of comments.

    I think the conversation is too one sided, not just between artist and critic, but also between artist and audience. We seem to have segmented ourselves into silence.

    No one can control their narrative completely. But we, most theatres in general, miss a big opportunity by not engaging others in conversation.

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  3. Where is that conversation? Where can we begin it? The traditional talk-back after the show model feels a little contrived and outdated to me. It’s providing access, but not depth, and not true discussion I feel. You, the audience, ask questions. We, the artists, answer them. You, the audience, nod your heads, maybe say “Hmm. Interesting.” And then you go about your business and we go about ours.

    Working in theatre education, I’m also finding it frustrating that we’re not engaging the young people we’re “outreaching” to in a real dialogue. You, the students, see the play. We, the artists, hold a talkback with our prefabbed answers for your questions about line memorization and where the blood comes from. You, the students, are forced to write a response letter by your teachers. Maybe you have some problems with the show that you vent onto the paper, problems that stem from never being exposed to anything that is truly theatrical and not catered to your TV/film-based expecations of acting (expectations which you can’t help and which are not your fault). Maybe you send hyperbolic, thesaurus-laced praise (i.e. “this is the most incredible, illuminating, revelating play in the history of anything ever.” Maybe – and thank you – but my goodness, we need to get you in more theatres, as many as we can, so you have something else with which to compare and contrast this play). We, the administrators (here’s another problem), receive and read the letters. And that’s where the “dialogue” stops in most big theatres. Maybe the actors see the letters – some of them – but even the best of the best send blanket response letters back to the students that end rather than continuing the conversation.

    Is the answer on-line in blogs like this one and open web-based forums? Is it in holding open rehearsals where audience members can see part of the process and provide input and engage in discussion before everything’s so final, allowing them to then come back and see this piece that they helped to create? Is it in artistic town-hall meetings? We’ll hold those for politicians and pundits, why not for our artists and audiences as well?

    But in this culture where everyone’s a critic, everyone has their fifteen minutes, eveyone is feeling more empowered than ever to express their opinion to a world-wide audience, we need to jump on that train. We need to harnes that energy to make our art just as vital and exciting and dynamic as this crazy blogosphere.

    Theatre can change the world – we just have to remember that the world is already constantly changing and the merry-go-round isn’t going to slow down so we can jump on. We just have to find a way to get a running start.

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  4. Thanks for all your thoughts, guys. this really is a central question to the work we do moving forward – How do we manage the greater dialogue we can have with our communities – and I think there are probably a myriad of approaches to addressing the problem. It’s a problem that the film industry solved with DVD extras. Maybe that’s our solution.

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