The Artist-Audience Contract (and Why You Shouldn’t Break It)

When I was in theatre school, we were told to “see everything” we could, and that doing this would help our growth as artists. We were also encouraged to “do everything” (although obviously it was understood this wouldn’t quite be as possible).

It seems that I really took this maxim to heart. In the three years since graduating with my BFA and especially since I’ve begun blogging, I’ve made it a mission to attend shows, support my peers, and, by and large, be a part of the theatre-going community (it helps, of course, that since graduating I have had much more money and time at my disposal). In this time, I have taken in a lot of great theatrical and cultural events (and still missed many good ones, much to my chagrin).

But I’ve also suffered through a lot of stinkers. Yeah, I said it. STINKERS. And I think maybe I’m done. With stinkers.

There comes a time when some of the wisdom imparted to you by your betters is no longer relevant. It is this time when you realize that your betters, in their infinite wisdom, imparted the information to you that you needed at the time, but knew you likely wouldn’t stick with it forever. When I was a student, everything was a learning experience. I hadn’t developed my taste yet, and the more I saw, the more theatrical tools I’d have at my fingertips (and the more theatrical pitfalls I would know to avoid). To my teachers I say thank you for this piece of wisdom, and I know you will understand why it is now time to show this particular piece of wisdom the door.

The reason is this: not all theatre is equal, and not all artists are the same, but one thing that every show worth its salt SHOULD have is a respect for the unspoken artist-audience contract. What I mean by the artist-audience contract is the understanding that the artist(s) presenting the show have worked hard on what the audience is about to see. As an artist, if I expect someone to pay for a ticket, ride the bus, walk through the rain (’cause let’s face it, if you’re seeing a Vancouver show it’s probably raining), hang out awkwardly in a lobby wearing their wet coat and finally sit through my show for however long it is, I need to damn well ensure that I have done everything I could on my end to show respect for this person.

This does not mean making a show accessible to everyone, or to everyone’s tastes. This does not mean avoiding controversial subjects (or conversely, deliberately taking on a provocative theme so the audience can feel hard-core). This does not mean high-tech magic, fancy venues, or avoiding spontaneity (hell, improv performers work very hard at what they do). Having respect for my audience means taking their time as seriously as I expect them to take mine. If we want an audience to respect us enough to sit quietly during our performances and not leave unless they absolutely have to (even if they hate what they’re seeing), we need to respect them. The way to show respect for our audience is to work hard and PREPARE adequately.

For the most part this is a given, and most artists I know would never dream of putting their audience through a poorly-prepared or under-rehearsed production (the exception to this would of course be workshop or developmental showings of work in preparation for a more polished script/production). Sadly, however, there are some stinkers out there. For whatever reason, it seems these stinkers are so confident in the undefinable power of their talent/script/personality/vision that they take their audience for granted. They take a warm audience’s humouring of their lack of preparation for enjoyment of and connection to their “work”. They take their audience’s uncomfortable laughter as a sign that their train wreck of a show is funny. Or something. And they tend to do all this with either a big shit-eating grin on their face or a snooty high-brow attitude that just screams “I’m an artiste and my work is important!”

You know what, stinker? It’s not. And if you fail to prepare adequately for what you are presenting, you hardly have the right to call that theft of my time work. If I have to sit through your ill-prepared piece of crap, I’m the one doing the work here, and maybe you should need to buy a ticket from me to compensate me for my time.

Often the stinkers I encounter are the usual suspects–the so-called “emerging artists” who have big ideas perhaps, and big dreams, but spend all their energy on venue and promotion and forget, it seems, to make a decent show to go with their hot air. These stinkers really get on my nerves because they give REAL emerging artists (i.e. people who work really hard on their craft and on what they present but haven’t built a reputation or funding strategy yet) a bad name. Being “emerging” is not an excuse to do your work badly. It is not an excuse to disrespect your audience and their money and time. The emerging artists I call my friends are able to produce good (albeit underfunded) work on less than a shoestring budget, the whole time working paying jobs on the side. They understand their duty to their audience, and they understand their responsibility to themselves and to the people they work with. If you want recognition and exposure, you have to prove yourself. And proving yourself takes work.

Some of these stinkers don’t realize what they’re doing. They believe very strongly in their vision and can’t (or won’t) understand why it isn’t working for an audience–they’re giving a lot of time and energy but they aren’t using their heads and they’re not working effectively. These stinkers I feel sorry for. The stinkers I really can’t abide are the ones who know they haven’t prepared, who know that what they have to offer is not something they’ve worked hard on and for some reason they Just Don’t Care.

I want to make very clear right now that getting up on a stage and simply “being charming” and flying by the seat of your pants is not admirable. Your lack of preparation does not make what you managed to pull out of your butt any more impressive. It is what we in the theatre world like to call “wanking”. It is disrespectful to your audience and to the other artists you’re working with. Don’t do it.

“Wanking” is not unique to emerging work. There are also stinkers to be found among professional companies. I have sat through professional productions WHERE EVERYONE SHOUTED THE WHOLE TIME. I have sat through productions that had budgets that talented emerging directors would KILL for, and though the costumes were nice and the set was cool, the direction was merely perfunctory. I have sat through productions where every single transition was a black-out (adding, I’m not kidding, an extra 30 min to the show). I have sat through plays that were 40 min too long because of a clear lack of dramaturgy. The fact that I had to pay extra to see it at a “professional” production just made the breaking of the artist-audience contract that much worse.

Art deserves support. It can touch us, teach us, and add so much colour to our lives. Artists work very very hard to make this happen for their audience and I am pleased to support that. But there are some stinkers out there screwing it up for the rest of us, and to them I say this:

I am done.

To hell with what my teachers said. I am an intelligent adult and I know enough about theatre to know when I am being disrespected as an audience member. If you don’t take your work seriously, why the hell should I? Smarten up. Until you do, you will not be seeing me at your shows.

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