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What About the Audience?

And the future looks like ... ?

April's Theater cover story, "Why Theater Matters," called for L.A. to harvest its abundant assets of small theater and dedicate itself to drawing stronger national attention to what it already does best: incubate new works. That article also drew attention to several local, smaller theaters that are on "the tip of the spear" in terms of presenting the kinds of productions that challenge established ideas of what theater is supposed to do. It was a profile of the city's lesser-known experimental wing, including Son of Semele Ensemble, NeedTheater, the Steve Allen Theater and REDCAT.

The piece's varied responses included complaints that championing experimental theater, so limited in popularity, was not in the best interests of keeping L.A. theater relevant. How relevant can the art form be, after all, if it's only being seen by niches of the intellectually precocious, while leaving out the crowds that pour into the Pantages? What about the audience? Critics like me, who stand up for minority tastes, are behind "the problem" of our theater's demise, the detractors suggested.

Those arguments shine a light on the contrary philosophies of relevance in the theater — mirrored, of course, in all other arts. In one school, popularity and relevance are one and the same: A sold-out show in a big theater is relevant because so many people will see it. The other school, represented in the cover story, holds a different view: Relevance is not necessarily tethered to popularity or to commerce — though it can be if, for instance, experimental work is given financial and press support, and if crowds show up out of curiosity, or perhaps just to jeer.

An entire school of popular British theater, plays and playwrights was influenced by the experimental plays put on by the Royal Court Theatre, from the 1970s through the 1990s. These were not particularly popular plays, nor did they necessarily garner rave reviews. The playwrights (such as Arnold Wesker, Howard Brenton, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Edward Bond) are a long way from being the names that crop up in kitchen conversations, even in Britain. Yet these are the works seen by the comparatively well-known British playwrights — the likes of Caryl Churchill, David Hare and Martin McDonough. These are the kinds of works that more commercially inclined playwrights look at with a kind of envy — for the quality and originality of ideas being presented (though there's little envy for the tiny cadre of enthusiasts who follow such work). Thus, these are the plays and ideas that influence the more commercially minded playwrights — ensuring that new ideas trickle out, and up.

So it is in the United States. American behemoths of commercial theater, from Neil Simon to Christopher Durang, have openly expressed the influence that the decidedly noncommercial but fiercely respected Samuel Beckett had on their work, and the works of generations that followed. If our experimental wing is clipped, and we grow to depend only on what is popular in order to define what is relevant, we are actually consigning the art form to inevitable, eventual irrelevance. (Read: abject boredom.) Because it's risk that moves the art form forward; popular theater, and the economic imperatives that create it, have by definition an aversion to such risk.

Not mentioned in the article was the work of L.A. Stage Alliance, a nonprofit service organization that puts out a magazine profiling local theaters and individuals in them, administrates a discount-ticket program and conducts workshops on marketing, publicity and other challenges faced by the theater community. LASA has had many incarnations and has survived various crises, including a crushing debt, staff cuts and seeing its glossy print L.A. Stage Magazine become the online L.A. Stage Blog. It's now headed by a two-man team, Executive Director Terence McFarland and Programs Manager Doug Clayton, with supplemental support from a small staff.

The other facet of L.A. Stage Alliance's work recently has been empirical research that sets the stage for the kind of theater that can, and might, make Los Angeles among the nation's more relevant theater cities. Setting the stage doesn't usually warrant attention; it's what's on the stage once it has been set that gets noticed. Yet LASA's investigations of the question "What about the audience?" are particularly sophisticated and nuanced, and can go a long way to shattering the myth that popular theater need necessarily be the most relevant theater.

McFarland and Clayton have kept quiet about policy proposals for L.A. theater because, they believe, they don't yet understand empirically what the problems and possibilities for resolving them are. So, LASA has become a kind of research institute, seeking the facts and figures of who is going where, and why. Now that the organization, according to McFarland, will be debt-free by December, they're in a position to press ahead with research.

One of the programs in the works, Arts Census, is designed "to understand in a comprehensive way arts patronage," McFarland explains. So far, they have data on 57 organizations and 2.5 million unique households. "My goal is to hit 200 organizations by the end of the calendar year."

Among his influences is researcher Alan Brown, who has defined audiences along a continuum, from the disinclined (those openly uninterested in the arts) to the dedicated. Says McFarland, "Each of those groups requires different strategies and tactics — the most dedicated will find a play regardless of marketing efforts. You could hide, and they're going to track you down.

"We still see theaters whose idea of marketing is to send out e-blasts to everyone in their social networks and offer half-price tickets because their show isn't selling well. Why discount your dedicated audience? We want to know who those patrons are, or maybe such a program can turn a moderately interested patron into a dedicated one. Arts Census should identify clusters of how the audiences are engaged. Identify clusters and build programs for those clusters."

Among the false assumptions McFarland aims to rectify? All audiences are the same, and all of L.A.'s 99-seat theaters are run the same way.

With this kind of data, theater companies will be in a stronger position to propose policies that can help fill the 25-seat experimental theater in an alley behind Western Avenue, as well as the Ahmanson. Because "What about the audience?" is really the wrong question. LASA is asking, "What about the audiences? And where might they overlap?"

In the attempt to help direct audiences to the theaters they're most interested in, McFarland says, he's licensed the rights to access research from the California Cultural Data Project (supported by the Getty, the James Irvine and the William and Flora Hewlitt foundations, California Arts Council and L.A. County Arts Commission) in order to create a report in the fall on what various business models exist in our 99-seat theaters. Because how a theater functions has a direct relationship to what kind of audience it will attract. Is there a full-time, paid staff person? Is this a dues-paying company? Which business models exist?

"What will the next chapter look like?" McFarland asks. "How do we support the [local theater] community?

"When a company comes in from Chicago and we get the phone call that they want to start a theater, we want to be able to show five models of 99-seat theaters," he adds.

Bending away from the Broadway model of theater, McFarland and LASA ask, "What is the greater mission of creativity in a society?"

"We're always forced to make the economic arguments, but what about the guy who wants to take a dance course, or a painting class? What about happiness? Does it fall to a service organization to say, 'Oh, what about the communities where there are no arts organizations — the amateur choir, the creative writing program?' " he asks.

How can the arts be part of the quality of our life? This is a question that's far more profound than filling theater seats or arguing that if it's good enough for the Pantages, it's good enough.

The quality of our future lies, as always, in how we address that question.