Wednesday, 27 March 2013

In the moment

This is one of the best pieces I've read about the pros and cons of 'audience engagement'. Tom Jacobs begins with a story about a young reporter live-tweeting a performance by the Mobile Symphony Orchestra from a special row of twitter-seats (much like my recent visit to the New Zealand Royal Ballet) but moves out into a wider consideration of active and passive reception of arts events and experiences, and the reasons why organisations and institutions are trialling new approaches:

The rise of tweet seats is just one facet of a larger shift taking place in the performing arts—one that champions “audience engagement” and, in the minds of critics, subtly denigrates “passive spectating.” The new conventional wisdom is that it’s vital not just to put on the best show you can, but to give audiences the sort of intense, interactive, personal experience that makes them feel involved in the production. That means prepping your audience ahead of time, debriefing them afterwards, and giving them opportunities to comment or participate as well as observe. In some cases, audience engagement means inviting people to sing, play, or dance along with the performers; in others, to split their attention between the stage and (very small) screen.
Jacobs then goes somewhere smart:
Not surprisingly, many performers and older patrons of the arts hate this idea, which they regard as pandering to the young. But thankfully, the debate over participatory art needn’t devolve into a depressing bout of intergenerational warfare. The controversy raises a number of questions that are hard to answer: Is sustained focus even possible in mass audiences anymore? If not, what have we lost? But part of the discussion, taken on its own terms, boils down to a fairly tractable psychological question: Who, really, is more engaged? Is it the audience member holding a screen and responding to the action with his thumbs, or the one sitting silently in the dark with her eyes glued to the stage?
After a while, we're in mirror neurons and transcendental experiences. There are a lot of questions and opinions, and few answers and little data. But Jacobs does make the interesting point that our passive behaviour in front of art is a relatively recent phenomena:

This isn't the first time that the relationship between artist and spectator has undergone a cultural shift. No one in Elizabethan England was talking about “ye olde engagement,” but that may be because the interactive nature of theater was taken for granted. At the first productions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, audiences were anything but docile. This dynamic shifted in the late 19th century for several reasons, including the rise of the romantic artist-as-superhero myth. (You don’t talk back to Beethoven; you worship him.) Ironically, the pacification of the audience was largely the result of an earlier technological breakthrough.
As chronicled by Lynne Conner, chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at Colby College, the key moment occurred in 1881, when the Savoy Theatre in London—home of the still-famous Gilbert and Sullivan operettas—“became the first theater fully equipped with discretely wired electric lighting on stage and in the auditoriums.” For the first time in history, the actors on stage could be brightly lit while the audience sat in darkness. They talked or played; we minded our manners.

This reminded me of a 2010 article by music critic Alex Ross, talking about how audience behaviour in performances of classical music has changed. Somewhat presciently, in an article written just over 3 years ago, Ross ends with a section titled 'Tweet your enthusiasm' (although he doesn't necessarily endorse this: his suggestion was for "more old-fashioned – more local, communal" performances). As the 2013 AAM Trendwatch document suggested though, all of us working in the arts are going to have to figure out ways to balance the artists' and the audiences expectations and enjoyment.

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