Bridging the 'Mystic Divide' Between Audiences and Art


It used to be that walking into a performance space filled me with anticipation, but lately my feelings have changed. Traditional venues just don't thrill me like they used to. I'm sure it's me, not them. I've changed somehow. But these days when I walk into a theater or concert hall it's always the same thing: I take a seat, look at the program, a brief exchange with a friend, and sit back. And wait. I'm waiting for something to happen to me and a quick look around the room tells me that other audience members are doing the same. We are passive, at best receptive, at worst distracted. It's the physical act of sitting back that puts miles between an audience and the experience it's hoping to have.

It's this distance between what the Greeks called "theatron," the seeing place, and the stage that identifies performance venues of all sizes from the intimate Son of Semele space in Historic Filipinotown to Disney Hall. Performing art venues are designed for art observation: spectatorship. Even the unself-conscious encouragement of Theatre @ Boston Court's Executive Director, who in his pre-show speech asks the audience not to sit back, rather to "lean forward" and be prepared to experience theater at its best -- really Boston Court?-- does not foster greater connection.

Don't get me wrong, I like regular venues okay and frequently have fantastic experiences that captivate and transport me. And that's what I'm in it for. I get off on how art allows me to walk in someone else's shoes for awhile: to see through other eyes. I love how it can fill me with emotion or cause me to question. It's not my thing that music helps kids do better in math or that psych patients can express themselves through theater. I want art with artistic intention and I want that intention to be directed unwaveringly toward me--the audience. And the faster and more efficiently the artistic intention spans the distance between performer and audience, the more satisfying the experience.

Now I'd like to say here that I am by no means a proponent of performers coming out into the audience as a means of engagement. That just terrifies audiences. The awkward 70s theatrical concept of "breaking down the fourth wall" is the stuff nightmares are made. Please stop.

So if the inherent physical distance in a traditional performing venue makes my goal of transportation and captivation more difficult, does performance in non-traditional venues make it easier? Or, conversely, does non-traditional performance in a traditional venue provide easier access?

Art in Unique Environments
Heidi Duckler is an LA-based choreographer who creates site-specific performances in extraordinary places. (See more information about Heidi in Artbound's June 11th post by AC Remler.) She has created and presented work in Southern California locations like Los Angeles City Hall, the Subway Terminal Building, the Herald Examiner Building, the LA Police Academy, the old Ambassador Hotel, the LA River, swimming pools, and in laundry-mats.

Dancer: Chris Stanley | Photo: Paul Antico.
Dancer: Chris Stanley | Photo: Paul Antico.

Environment plays a critical role in Heidi's work. She lets "place" inform concept and choreography. What communal memories are locked in this building? Who walked on this earth? Who built this? Why? Only after those questions and more are fully explored is she ready to bring dancers in and begin work. Her respect for "place" is obvious throughout the performance and the venue often plays a starring role as dancers embrace it, repel off it, fight against it, drape themselves around it.

Heidi's creative process also includes making decisions about how the audience will experience the piece. She lets the venue itself dictate what kind of audience experience we will have: whether we will journey from place to place through the work or view it through glass, or from an aerial perspective. Perhaps from a distance then intimately close.

Certainly as audience members we are immediately impacted by Heidi's environment or venue choices. The experience of site specific work raises questions for us and throws us off balance: "Am I in the right place?" "Will we sit or stand?" "Am I wearing the right shoes?" These questions open doors through which we can communicate with other audience members, after all we're in this together: "Have you been here before?" "Do you know where we're supposed to go?" Our communal uncertainty creates friendliness. "This way! Over here!" someone yells and we move forward. We arrive, not as individuals but as a group: an audience. We are hyper-alert not knowing when we will be called into action again. Before the performance begins our journey toward captivation has already begun.

Unique Work in Traditional Environments
Long Beach's Jocelyn Foye thinks of herself as a visual artist. I think of her as a theater producer/presenter who creates shocking theatrical events in traditional gallery spaces. Her events are highly physical --Sumo wrestling, roller derby, dance, boxing, air guitar-- and are performed on material such as moist clay. After the event these materials harden to create sculptural reliefs that are both abstract and grounded in the origins of their creation. The resulting objects carry the aura of the performance, but function as complete artworks unto themselves.

Sumo Wrestler meets Art Gallery | Photo: Marshall Astor.
Sumo Wrestler meets Art Gallery | Photo: Marshall Astor.

While the artwork hangs in the gallery throughout the exhibition, the theatrical event that created it is ephemeral. Jocelyn is a theater producer unlike any other I've met. She has a remarkably high tolerance to risk. She conceives events, like a bad match-maker, "Sumo Wrestler meet Art Gallery. You are ridiculously incompatible and you won't be together long. Perfect!"

Her theatrical performances are heavy with spectacle and excitement. They are unlikely moments in time laden with theatricality but absent theatrical pretense. Spontaneous events brought to life by skilled performers with no predetermined outcome. Jocelyn knows that the event's high risk level coupled with its incongruity just might throw her audience's equilibrium off enough to crack our shells and open us up to captivation.

Being part of Jocelyn's audience is a very different experience than being part of Heidi's audience. While we do know where we're going, we don't know what to expect when we get there. Not only does the event itself require that we step away from our pre-conceived notions of what art is, but our experience as an audience member is also impacted by the fact that often a good portion of Jocelyn's audience is there because they are fans of the sport being presented.These audience members bring an entirely different attitude with them. They cheer and boo and hoot while pumping their arms in the air. They are foreign beings who have entered our hallowed halls. We have a choice as arts patrons: We can observe these foreigners or we can pump and hoot too; see what that feels like, where that takes us.

Pow Wow | Photo: Jeff Foye.
Pow Wow | Photo: Jeff Foye.

In 2005 the Rand Corporation published a report called Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts which, in part, discusses the intrinsic benefits of art. The following are a couple of definitions from the report:

  • Captivation. The initial response of rapt absorption, or captivation, to a work of art can briefly but powerfully move the individual away from habitual, everyday reality and into a state of focused attention. This reaction to a work of art can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.
  • Creation of social bonds. When people share the experience of works of art, either by discussing them or by communally experiencing them, one of the intrinsic benefits is the social bonds that are created


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