Time to Flip the Script

How can theatre thrive in the digital age?

Time to Flip the Script
by Chris Blockus
August 4, 2015

Not long ago, NPR ran a story about a college student who, while attending a broadway performance of Hand to God, jumped on stage to try to charge his phone in what turned out to be a prop electrical outlet. This is an absurd example of what seems to be a trend: theatre audiences are becoming increasingly disengaged and rude.  In the same article, actress Patti LuPone (star of Shows for Days at Lincoln Center) described a recent experience: “I noticed in the first act — at the very beginning of the first act — a woman texting.”  According to LuPone, the texting continued into the second act, so as part of a scene in which she reaches out to shake an audience member’s hand, LuPone actually snatched the woman’s phone! The idea that the cell-phone generation is short on manners is so widespread that New York City passed an actual law banning mobile device usage in theatres.

Interestingly, this complaint is not unique to theatre.  It’s popular in the education world, as well.  Young people, the story goes, have been raised in an electronic culture of immediate gratification and have collectively developed a generational ADD that prevents them from sitting still and watching a lesson, a play, or anything else that doesn’t wrap up in less than 10 minutes.  While for teachers this is an unquantifiable gripe (kids are still required to show up to school), performers have good reason to be very concerned about a disengaged audience.  Bored audiences don’t continue to buy tickets.

Broadway shows are as close to Hollywood blockbusters as staged theatre has been able to come, but even they fail to capture the interest of a younger audience.  The average age of moviegoers is about 30. By comparison, the average age of the broadway audience is now 44 (and steadily aging). The higher that age creeps, the more palpable the sense of irrelevance will become for anyone involved in live theatre.  The executives of typewriter companies must have felt this same dread when their plight became undeniable.

Can it be that sharing cat videos is actually more engaging than watching Cats?  Well…yes, actually.  It isn’t that we have lost the attention span to sit through a musical, a lecture, or a religious service, it’s that we never really had it in the first place.  Before there were smartphones carefully hidden behind backpacks, there were notes passed across aisles, magazines lurking behind textbooks, and napping during prayer. We’re still interested in good, challenging stories, but now we have better, easier ways to control the narrative and become immersed.

It isn’t easy to put on any type of production (theatrical or otherwise), so it’s natural to become defensive when all that hard work is dismissed in favor of a youtube video or a text message. After nabbing the texter’s phone, LuPone made some telling remarks at the next performance.  She personally addressed the audience about mobile devices, saying of the show: “We love doing it; we love having you as an audience. And we do it for you. And it’s always just two or three people who wreck it for all of us.”

Diane Paulus, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, disagrees with this type of thinking.  When speaking to Harvard Magazine, she said that “There’s a syndrome in our profession—to blame the audience, especially young people.” Paulus has “[…] always found this deadening, because it doesn’t give you any room to change.” Good point.  The onus is never on the audience to be entertained.  Directors (or teachers, or musicians, or pastors) simply have to come to terms with the fact that they can no longer hold the audience hostage.

One attempted solution has been spectacle:  the explosions just keep getting bigger.  It is pretty clear, though, that appealing to the lowest common denominator both insults viewers and ups the ante for the next production.  This isn’t the answer for entertainment in general, and the growing list of casualties in Spiderman: Turn off the Dark should be enough to convince anyone even peripherally involved in live performance to quickly search for another solution.

The iot approach to this problem is simple: engaging people isn’t about giving them something pretty to look at, it’s about giving them something meaningful to do. To some degree, others are coming to similar realizations. Punchdrunk leads the audience around a three dimensional space in Sleep No More.  Andrew W.K. and Amanda Palmer are famous for breaking the barrier of the stage and allowing their fans close access during their performances. Each of these examples really sheds light on the core of why attending a live production is so powerful.  People are tribal, and there is no substitute for sharing an amazing experience with others with similar interests. No other entertainment medium can tap into that power better than theatre, and the time has come to harness it.

Moving away from “doing for” and towards “doing with” means the role of the audience must change entirely. Directors, writers, and actors want their stories to raise questions in the minds of their audience members but seemingly have not yet come to the conclusion that best-practice educators have turned into a cute proverb: “The best teacher isn’t a sage on the stage but a guide on the side.”  At iot, we realized that replacing “teacher” with “performer” in that proverb concisely explains the shift theatre needs to make to be successful. Thriving today requires ditching the diva attitude and embracing a collaborative culture that creates meaning together.

What would that kind of theatre look like? Imagine theatre with no script, no passive audience, and no stage. Instead, pair a few supporting actors with the audience and allow the audience to take on the leading characters in the story. In this scenario, the audience members aren’t set up to passively receive information. Suddenly, they become participants in the story and have responsibility for their own experiences.  In other words, they become actors themselves. They must connect with one another and decide what to do, what to say, where to go, and how to get there. In leaving their passive observer role behind, participants drive a narrative, experience a world, grapple more profoundly with the questions presented in the story, and ultimately share a deeply meaningful experience.

Every iot production is built around this concept. Directors, writers, and supporting actors still bear responsibility for structuring a compelling world but do so in ways that allow the audience to interact with it, manipulate it, and create meaning. This shift transcends the dialogue about competing with cell phones for audience attention and focuses on co-creating and sharing a world with participants. Success in the digital age depends upon inviting all members of the modern audience to express their own stories and building community through shared experience.  For iot, this means creating productions that completely flip the proverbial script.

To Ms. LuPone, no hard feelings.  Come blow off some steam at an iot production any time. It’ll be on the house.