12. THE CONTRACT
It’s often hard to say where an idea begins. I’ve long been puzzling over the contract between the theatre and its audience. What is it, who does it reach, and perhaps most importantly, who doesn’t it reach? Perhaps most urgently, can it be changed? Those of us who have been to a lot of theatre know who comprises the ‘typical’ audience. It skews older, whiter, and richer. There are, of course, wonderful exceptions but I feel pretty safe in calling it the rule. There is also a strong case to be made that much of our progressive storytelling is simply preaching to the choir. Many times have I been watching a show and felt like the interaction between players and audience was nothing more than a lot of patting each other’s back. This all crystalized when I was working at a big house in Chicago, assisting for a successful career theatre artist. It was the first preview and the audience was filtering in when my director looked at me and said, “I love the theatre, but I hate the audience.” It was at that moment that I became determined to never feel the same way.
I want to love my audience because I believe theatre happens in the liminal space between the stage and the crowd. It’s the alchemy of story and receiver that creates meaning and, at best, catharsis. In order to maximize this communion, the audience must be diverse in their points of view. The following may seem tangential but bear with me and I'll bring it home. When Willie Nelson decided Nashville wasn’t for him, he returned home to Austin, bucked the traditional packaging, and began putting on authentic concerts. These shows brought two tribes together that had traditionally been on opposing, territorial, and often violent sides: the cowboys and the hippies. Once under the same tent of Willie’s music, an alliance grew, and violence ceased. I would argue there are very few entertainers that most folks can agree on and Willie is one of them. His story has been a talisman for me. That community building is what I think theatre, and specifically American Myth, has the potential to do.
Before I buck the popular packaging and tear apart the typical contract of theatre, I should define what exactly it is. Let’s begin at the beginning. One must be aware of the show, through advertisements, social media or being proactive in their search for theatre. One must call or go online to reserve a spot for a specific time and place and typically have the money to spend on the ticket. Then, one must figure out how to get there and be sure it is accessible for them. There is usually a building one’s invited into where the rules continue. Those rules aren’t spelled out anywhere, of course, with the exception of a few during the pre-show announcement. But I get ahead of myself. One must have printed their ticket at home if they had the ability to or they could have it on their fancy phone if they have one. If neither are an option, one finds a place called the box office to collect their ticket. Either way, once the ticket is in hand, they make their way towards the seating where often there is an usher, who looks at your ticket and exchanges that recognition with a program for the show. The usher may lead one to one’s seat, point one to one’s seat, or do neither. There may not even be an usher as the person at the box office could have taken care of all of this instead. The ticket (and/or usher) tells one where to sit, or at least, what area to sit in. These seats are very often side by side and faced in the same direction. Looking around, there is a bare minimum dress code, if not a more elevated one. Only certain food (and maybe drinks) are allowed and those must be able to be eaten without a crinkle, crunch or tear. Cell phones, one will be told a few times, must be turned off and, if for some reason one misses the instruction, the shame and wrath flung when it rings, chirps or buzzes will be felt severely. At a given time (usually five to ten minutes after the time designated on the ticket) everyone is plunged into darkness. Lights then come up, but only in the direction of the stage to make sure attention will be focused on the actors. There is no talking beyond the smallest whisper to one’s companion for clarification. There is certainly no talking in the direction of the stage. During the show, trips to the bathroom or lobby are frowned upon, for that would disrupt those around the person in need. This may feel like a movie, but it is not. That is why there is an intermission, which commences when the lights above you come back on, and during which all business not allowed until then must be attended. If one of those items is checking one’s phone, one hopes everyone is mindful enough to turn it back off before they return to their seats. Flickering lights often mark the end of intermission and the time to resume one’s seat in order to be plunged into darkness once again. The rest of the show goes forward with all of these rules until the end. At this point, the lights come back on, but it is not time to leave. That is when the cast comes back out, no longer acting, and stands facing the audience in some sort of choreographed line. This is when the audience claps in their direction. A hoot or holler is also appropriate if true enjoyment has been had. If the show exceeded all of one’s expectation, standing while clapping is called for. However, if it doesn’t exceed expectations, but all others around one stands, the continued sitting will appear rude and ungrateful in comparison, so one should probably stand in that case as well. Then it is time to quietly make one’s way out of the theatre, only speaking about the show if there are positive things to say. As one exits the building, the contract is complete. Theatre has been consumed.
I’ll admit right here and now that I still love this ritual. I don't break it down like this to make fun of it. I do so to try and highlight the unspoken specificity of the contract. It’s fun to feel part of a club that knows the rules of ritual. But here’s the thing and I can only speak for myself. I feel that way because I learned them with great privilege. My theatre education came in London, seeing show after show for an entire summer, until I knew the ritual cold. But what if I went and didn’t know any of that? At how many turns would I feel lost and confused, or worse, uncomfortable and unwelcome? That is all assuming that I get to the door. I would argue there are a significant number of folk in every community that hear the word “theatre” and do not believe they are invited. What is the point of a communal event if the community is not represented?
Now, let’s tear it apart.
Let’s not do a show in a theatre. Let’s have an event in the community. There are no tickets, no billets, no passes or ID’s. You may enter our ritual grounds with only yourself as proof of admission. Instead of seats all facing one way, we do it in the round and you can sit anywhere you please. Instead of a building, we’ll play outside as the Greeks once did, so that there’s no barrier between us and the world that we’re trying to figure out. Instead of the darkness, we shall play in the light. It’s not a meditation, it’s a celebration. Please take out all cell phones and make sure they’re on. You might want to take a picture, text your friend, or call your mom. You never know how a story will move you. Don’t wait for intermission. If you get hungry, head on over to the food truck. If you need to pee, get on up and relieve yourself. If something strikes you, share it with your neighbor. If it really strikes you, share it with the actors on the stage. If something blows you away, find your way to the nearest tipping receptacle and toss in some coin. If you can only stay a while, stay a while and come back when you can. If you can stay until the end, clap if you like but we’d really like to shake your hand. All this is to say, the only rule is to be here. Just. Be. Here.
That may well be the first draft of the curtain speech. With The Ballad of R & J, we will put this new contract to the test. Can we rewrite the theatrical contract? If we do, will that change the invitation? Only time will tell. This, however, is only the first step. Step two will be taking this show on the road. Stay tuned.