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Who You Want Your Audience To Be

I’ve been thinking a lot about “audience” recently. I went to three shows this weekend, two fringe and one mid-size, and saw a huge disparity in who was attending the shows. This wasn’t surprising. It was exactly what you’d expect: majority older white subscribers at the mid-size, majority 20-40-somethings and theatre artists at the fringe, with a decided spike in diversity at the fringe show that had POC cast members. The feeling of vibrant community and celebration of theatre was infinitely stronger at the fringe productions.

This experience made me think about the seemingly age-old (no pun intended) lament about audience. “Ah, the theatre is dying.” “Ah, baby boomers are sucking the lifeblood from theatre.” “Ah, the old folks don’t want to see new things.” I don’t necessarily agree with any of those statements–though I do think mid- and larger-size theaters often treat their season selection as though those statements ring true, and therefore make them a self-fulfilling prophecy. But even if you do agree with all those things wholeheartedly. Which theatre are you talking about?

Notice that I use the “-re,” which technically means the art form as a whole rather than a physical building. (I say technically because really, who cares? As an English teacher, I can tell you, English evolves and morphs. You’ll survive. But for the purpose of this argument, when I use -re, I mean the art form.)

When theatre artists lament the omnipresence of grayhairs and the lack of youth and diversity in audiences, they’re not talking about the audiences who go to see fringe theatre with POC casts, not as much. They’re not actually lamenting the lack of diversity in all theatre. What they are lamenting–what we should be lamenting–is that where diversity is, resources aren’t. Even when the Huntington and ART and Lyric and Speakeasy produce shows with POC-inclusive casts, the audiences are usually still white. I know because my husband and I go to see many of these shows, and we play this game where we count people who could possibly be non-white in the audience we can see. He’s sometimes the only one, sometimes one of five or ten. The number has never exceeded all of our fingers.

Some of these mid- and larger-sized companies have initiatives that try (or report that they try) to find POC folks and get them to the theater building. But to me that seems backwards. Why create a piece of theatre first and only THEN try to drag your target audience to it, as though you know better than them what they should want? Shouldn’t you be considering who you want to come and structuring your entire show so that they do? So that they want to?

As a playwright, I find myself realizing all over again–and this may seem obvious–but if I keep sending work to the larger theaters and aiming for established resources, I’ll find myself in a very white world where I have to fight tooth and nail for diverse casting for roles that aren’t racially specific, and where I’ll look around at opening night and see hundreds of people who look like Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution. As an emerging artist, I’ve naturally been chasing resources. Production value, great marketing departments, money all around. And I do want to make a living at this thing I love (at least partially), so I’ll probably continue chasing resources.

But I don’t want to write for the way those resources are being used. I want to write for the fringe scene, where I have at least a vague shot of seeing my actual community at the door, paying $5 or $10 instead of $50. And the Boston fringe community has a LOT of work to do on diverse casting, too. (That’s a whole ‘nother blog post/novel.) But when the fringe community does show up with at-least-vaguely diverse casting, the actual Boston community sometimes shows up too.

When I write… I want to write for theatre that has inclusivity and community flowing through its aorta. For scrappy black boxes where present and future friends actually gather together instead of waving at people they know from their hedge fund club. And if my scrappy inclusive play then gets picked up by a Broadway producer, you won’t hear me complaining. But you will hear me having a probably “out-of-line” conversation with my producer about ticket prices and who’s actually getting in the doors.

Until then, rather than just writing to please the current resource-holders, I’ll consider my true audience as my goal.

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