September 30, 2003

Casting Call for Respectful Audiences

Filed under: Art and About Theater — admin @ 10:38 pm

Today’s lesson is on the importance of being a good audience member and, in particular, cultivating the next generation of audience members.

I’m not sure if those who choose to be in the audience of live theater and concert experiences fully realize how important they are to the success of a show. Performers and creative talents want people to buy tickets to their shows, but the ultimate goal is not to sell tickets so that the artsy types can get a beach house in Malibu. In actuality, those on the stage are only half of the equation in a theatrical experience. The audience makes up the other 50 percent.

It’s a big responsibility to be an audience member. I’m sure we’ve all been to a performance of some kind where the chemistry between performers and audiences was sadly incompatible and the whole thing felt flat. And we’ve seen performers with whom we connect so closely that at the end of the night, we feel like we could just pick up a conversation with them as if they were old friends.

It was during a recent music class in which my son and I participated that I got truly worried about how our children are being brought up to be bad audience members. We were in quite a large class of caretakers and toddlers and our teacher decided to do an exercise where each child gets a turn accompanying a song on the drum.

Because the class was large, the teacher gave the kids who were not playing the drum some shakers to beat time along with the drummer. For the first three or four kids, everyone respectfully sang along with the soloist and clapped encouragingly at the end. But as the drum was passed along the circle, more and more of the adults checked-out of the exercise. Some stopped singing and stared into space. Most turned to the person next to them and started talking about something that I’m sure was so important, it couldn’t possibly wait until the class was over. My kid happened to be at the tail end of the circle that day, and he and those three or four directly before him mostly got support from only their mothers and the teacher.

To me, this type of behavior is a bigger offense than simply being impolite. I believe it is being disrespectful to the arts. What kind of a message are you sending to my son, as a performer, by talking through his song and failing to clap when it’s over? You are saying there are more important things than his pursuit of creative expression. What are you saying to your own child about their role as a supporter of the arts? You are saying that unless they are the star, then their participation in the artistic process isn’t important.

This artistic felony is perpetrated by adults throughout our community. Every week at the Orinda Library’s toddler lapsit storytime, adults chat away while the librarian reads books and leads songs for our children. When was the last time you went to a show at the Lesher Center and people actually sat silently through the overture? Even at the San Francisco Symphony, some people seem to think that because a piano concerto or sonata for strings doesn’t have lyrics, then they have the right to talk through it. I’ve been on earth 31 short years, and I actually remember a time when, in a theatrical or concert setting, people shut up once the performance began. So in my non-scientific estimation, the degeneration of the audience’s perception of their role has happened within the last 30 years.

I’m not saying this is only a local problem. I have seen theater elsewhere in the Western world, and the trend is happening just about everywhere. But this is not an area where we need to keep up with the Joneses. We can be better supporters of the arts than the Joneses by changing the world one audience member at a time.

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