Director: Why do audiences resist?

Why do audiences resist stories told unconventionally? During intermission of Friday night’s performance of Appropriate, HumanaFest guest director Lila Neugebauer (O Guru Guru Guru) offered her perspective on what the visual arts have done right–and what theatre artists can learn from it.

WHAT’S IN THIS VIDEO: American theatre hasn’t done a great job in helping audiences navigate new storytelling forms. “Formal experimentation” and “non-traditional structures and styles” have posed “a greater challenge” to audiences than controversial content. Our job is to “make the argument” that some degree of “frustration” or “discomfort” might be rewarding for audiences. And then take them on a ride to remember.


  1. I think our job is not to think we’re better or more intelligent than our audiences -we should listen to them. Experimentation is great, but it should be tried and tested in a theatre lab or work-in-progress format first, and artists should have the humility to find out if what they’re trying to do actually works or not -before they submit an audience to it and try to convince them that they ‘missed the point’, or ‘don’t understand’: This insults everyones intelligence. Making up arguments like ‘it’s ok if you don’t understand, that’s ok’, are also counter-productive, art has always and will always try to communicate -something. If it’s not doing that, there’s a problem, and it’s far better if the artist accepts this fact rather than passing the blame for their failure -which could otherwise be an important learning curve – on to the audience.

    • I think she was not blaming the audience, I think she was blaming the discipline as a whole, and I totally agree with her. Theater tends to patronize audience members by narrowing the definition of what theater is down to something intensely recognizable, and for me out of date. There are so many ways to communicate, beyond simply telling a story or replaying an event. In other forms beyond only visual art, which is discussed here, work that is complicated, alienating or difficult is more readily embraced. Films like Memento, for instance, are confusing and alienating – they’re still great films. John Coltrane’s work, even as it got more ‘difficult’ post Love Supreme was at least talked about and understood as part of the broader field. Cy Twombly was controversial (people describing it as “not art!”), but people within visual art institutions felt it was a worthy conversation to have, and that their audience was ready to make decisions for themselves. Other genres trust their audiences more than theater does, generally. Some great notable exceptions include Playwrights Horizons, ASU Gammage and Humana, so it seems. Very happy to see this interview up.

  2. George, I appreciate the sentiment but disagree whole heartedly with your solutions. Theatre has been ‘incubated’ and ‘lab-bed’ to death. New Plays are choked an endless slow death as they are shuffled from lab to workshop to rehearsed reading, etc, etc. In the process, the playwright’s voice (I would argue the ‘something’ you mention above in the sentence : “art has always and will always try to communicate – something”) is weakened or lost amongst the noise of countless other co-writers.
    ‘Challenging’ work doesnt tell the audience that they “dont understand” the piece – it is simply altering their expectations. Ms Neugebauer may be onto something when she speaks of visual arts’ history of giving language to their audience to ‘unpack’ what they are looking at. But that audience can still reject the piece, or dismiss what it is trying to say, or even challenge whether or not the piece said anything LIKE what the artist/form intended. But that is NO argument to eliminate that kind of art from galleries. Challenging plays and forms are not to be ‘relegated’ away from Theatres because they do not please all the people all the time.
    Finally, in the many unpleasant evenings at the theatre I have spent, the hours Ive spent in talkbacks, rehearsals and conferences, NEVER ONCE have I heard a playwright, director or actor ‘blame’ something on an audience’s intelligence. In fact, that only seems to happen with companies producing ‘crowd favorites’ that the audience is actually smart enough to reject as insulting to their intelligence.

  3. Sara R. Leonard says:

    I think there’s a missing piece here. I would argue that the reason audiences are more frightened of formal experimentation in live performance is tied directly into basic human fears of taking risks. Going to a live performance feels like risk enough to audiences not already familiar with the more traditional theatrical art form. Add a promise that it may not be like anything they’ve seen before, and you’ve just increased the risk for everyone. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be done, but it does mean we have to find audiences other points of entry into work that may be challenging in formal ways. How can we reduce perceived risk for people? In an art museum context, if someone hates a painting, they can keep moving or leave without being stared at, having to climb over other patrons, etc. Not so in an theatre space. Certainly there are some theatre goers who thrive on a new theatrical experience, or are otherwise comfortable enough and they’re willing to go along for the ride, but most of our audiences will feel unsure and timid about a form that is, in essence, completely new. Our challenge is indeed one of education and communication, but I believe the solution lies in theatres taking the time to get to know their audiences (really). The onus is indeed on the arts organizations to remember that those of us who work in the arts are not typical audience members, and that we need to find meaningful and appropriate ways to create relationships. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

  4. Does anyone have a link to the Jones article she is speaking of?

  5. I think the problem is that theater costs a lot to produce and even on a really small scale takes a decent size audience to make this art form break even or make a few bucks. So taking big risks can often be the downfall of a theater who can alienate their consistent audiences and seldom grow their non-traditional audience. However, a well-done experimental piece often creates the buzz that a theater needs. That being said… I believe the most important part of any theatrical piece is to tell a story and if the audience can follow the story (in whatever innovative way it is told) the piece will speak for itself. If the story moves them or touches them then we have achieved our goal, even if it makes them uncomfortable or frustrated (as long as their frustration is not trying to figure out wtf they’re watching).

  6. I have struggled with this issue too—I am drawn to experimental work but don’t know how to market it. I suspect there’s an audience for it, if only among other theater artists, and I certainly don’t mind challenging people, but how do we target our work at audiences who would find it exciting, or welcome in skeptics in a way that allows them to try something that challenges them, to get that charge out of being challenged that we do? To me, “it’s really not like anything else you’ve ever seen” is profoundly positive. To most audiences, it seems to be a warning to stay away. And as others have mentioned, you really don’t see that so much in art or even in music and dance. Years ago when I directed Mac Wellman’s Antigone (which is in essence a dance piece with words and has next-to-nothing to do with the story of Antigone as we recognize it), I introduced the piece each night by saying, “When you go to a symphony or most any kind of concert, you don’t expect to be following a plot‚—you let the music wash over you and trust yourself to make your own associations with it, which probably are neither linear nor coherent. Likewise when you go see dance, you expect to maybe hear/feel a rhythm and watch bodies in motion but you do not burden yourself to interpret what each step or arm movement means, intellectually. This play is a dance pieces made up of words and ideas, and is best experienced by letting your mind wander and follow whatever associations the words or movements bring to mind in any give moment. The plot can be summed up in one simple sentence. The plot is also unimportant. The associations you bring to it are what is important.” And that seemed to work well for those who were there. After each performance we gathered and asked audience members what associations they had, what moments sparked a memory or a thought of their own, and together we made meaning of the piece. Once people got there, most were willing to take that leap—but it was like pulling teeth to get people there in the first place. I’d love to hear any techniques that have worked for others.

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