Plays are all old?

by Cindy Marie Jenkins

The editor of a local blog, upon receiving my draft about the NET Ensembles’ Micro Festival a couple of years ago, asked:

“I don’t mean to sound stupid, but why are new plays important?”

It was a huge wake up call for me, as I’d recently begun my journey down the rabbit hole of defining the practice of outreach. This was a very arts savvy community blogger who still needed to ask that question. She completely understood once I tried to explain it, but I found that I had trouble distilling the concept. I would never ask why we needed new music or new films, but plays in some circles have the image of being already written.

I tell this story a lot,  because I’m obsessed with the gap between artists and our potential audience. We all know the difficulty in getting people to see known plays, and how much harder it is when there is a new work. Maybe it will help if we start the story of new plays with why it is important to produce them.

Let’s look at this idea from a different angle:

Raise your hand if you rolled your eyes when they announced the reboot of Spider-man. I certainly did. I rolled my eyes when they announced Nolan’s reboot of Batman, and only years after Batman Begins was released did I actually see it and enjoy the new perspective.

In theatre, to the public non-theatre artist eye, we do reboots all the time. If

Actress Abby Wilde invites a young girl to watch Shakespeare at an arts festival.

someone sees Romeo & Juliet in high school, why should they see a new one? It will take quite an appealing postcard or write-up to get me to Midsummers, but most of the rest of Shakespeare’s canon is a pretty easy sell. No offense to Midsummers, I’m just not sure what another good to great production of it will offer.

And I’m a fan of live performance. Let’s face it, I’m only picking on Shakespeare because he’s one of the more well-known to laypeople.

So what is that “vapor point,” to use a term I learned from Daniel Stein? What is that fine line, that joy of the live performance, that will encourage people to look at new plays as something exciting, risk-taking, a must-see event because it cannot ever be replicated in that form again?

I think it starts with how we as artists tell our own story.

While researching Comic-Con for a video outreach series, I came across multiple actors who were asked what their favorite part of the whole shebang was. You know what many of them said?

The fans.

They don’t really get to meet their fans in an enjoyable way except at these conventions. Being approached while you fill your gas tank or try to have a quiet dinner doesn’t count, except often to illustrate the negative side. And many enjoy it. They love it. Because they don’t often get to experience their fans’ reactions and love of their work.

With all of these postcards, how is an audience to choose?

Felicia Day, whose very career trajectory is a lesson in niche audience development, devoted a good chunk of her weekly flog at Comic-Con to the fans(about halfway through). You can’t tell me everyone she painstakingly edited into that video didn’t share it with their friends, and while building an audience, sharing is your greatest currency.

I retweeted a lot of these examples back when they happened and foolishly didn’t bookmark, but some of the most successful fan bases in entertainment are built by creators who indulge and actively pursue their fans.

Some of the best times I had at a live performance space can always be tied back

Audience outside a Best of Fringe show

to a social aspect with the artists. T@BC has it with live wired among others; Antaeus still has active audience interaction in their library and ClassicsFest; Coeurage has it; The Hollywood Fringe Festival actively creates those spaces; the list goes on (and please add your own in the comments).

I see a lot of theatre artists focus on the live aspect and how cool that is, and I totally agree. I had an art piece in a local art walk and found myself sitting across the courtyard from the piece to ponder how people react to it. I couldn’t break myself of that habit of seeing reactions live.

Maybe one way to attract audiences to new works is to let them know how much we love hearing their reactions? Often we talk about the audience as a whole, but I just adore it when people remember one specific reaction or someone who remembered an actor from a live performance, and not a movie or TV show when they see them on the street.

Share those stories. Tell our future audience how much every single person means to us when they show up. In Kickstarter campaigns, it’s just as important to have a number of backers (even as low as $1 donated) to gain attention as it is to have a few at higher levels. People like to feel need, like to feel wanted.

Start here:

What are some of your stories?

What are your favorite memories of individual audience reactions?

What theaters do give these stories a focus? I would love to read or watch them!

When did an artist show attention to you as an audience member? How did that affect you?

Cindy Marie Jenkins is a Storyteller and Outreach Consultant. She regularly broadcasts videos on YouTube to connect technology to artists and artists to a new audience. Her home office sits directly above kegs of home-brewed beer.


3 responses to “Plays are all old?

  1. Easily my most favorite audience response EVER:

    One night during the run of THE MALCONTENT at Antaeus last year, we had an audience full of students from North Hollywood High School with a talkback scheduled afterwards. As I remember it, most of the cast members were a touch apprehensive about how the evening would go — we had all had a tough time with the rather obscure Jacobean political satire back in tablework, and we were less than confident in its ability to enrapture a roomful of teenagers.

    To our considerable relief, the performance itself went very well — the students were having a great time, and they were absolutely with us, laughing and clapping in all the right places. However, easily the most memorable part of the evening came during the talkback. At the end of the Q & A, one of us asked all of them if there were any among them who had never seen a play before. Two or three raised their hands, and we asked if any of them wanted to share their thoughts on the experience.

    This 14 or 15 year old young lady told us that she’d been really “scared” to come to the theater that night; just knowing it was a play, she was afraid she wouldn’t understand it, and once she learned it was a 400 year old play she was certain she’d be totally lost. But then (she told us), she was really excited to realize that not only could she follow everything, but she could also absolutely relate. She got more and more excited as she told us that she thought the issues she saw in the play were things she still saw people dealing with today: “people 400 years ago were doing the same stuff that people are doing now: the way men use women, the way that love so easily turns into lust, the way power corrupts…” And, she said, maybe that’s why theater is important: because if we took a look at ourselves and realized we’d been doing the same things for 400 years, maybe we’d learn to do better.

    We all gave her an ovation. And man, do I love my job.


  2. …Which is ironic, being as this is a blog on the importance of *new* work. Still. Get ’em while they’re young!


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