Audience engagement — it's a weak strategy. Never mind that it can seem to work. A friend sent me notes from the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, with details of the Cleveland Public Theater, and its impressive season, full of plays on subjects that just seem to scream contemporary relevance.
But still they wanted to boost attendane on slow nights. So they added some audience engagement — attrractive things, happening all around the art, in this case free beer — and ticket sales went up.
Which worked, and is fine. But it misses the larger point. Which is, as my friend said, that we in the arts (and certainly in classical music), quite beyond the Cleveland theater…we don't have the audience we want. So we start inventing schemes. We start from the assumption that our art is valid and important, and that people should respond to it. So we have to rope them in.
But we're not facing the reason for all this, which is that we and our art — both its content and its presentation, inextricably linked — aren't on the wavelength of contemporary life.
And — I think this is the deepest secret — we can't imagine that we could be on that wavelength.
But that's not us!
I was, well, ranting about this to my friend, and cited Kate Bush's return to live performance in London two summers ago. 11 shows in a huge venue sold out in 15 minutes. Seven more added, those sold out.
Oh, but you might say, that's pop music! Nothing to do with us. I beg to differ. We think it couldn't be us only because we can't imagine being so plugged in. And that's a failing. Let's aim high! It's so easy to find examples of the arts connecting in that way. Maybe not on Kate Bush's scale, but then this, too, is an important lesson. When you're on the wavelength, you connect at different heights. Mass audience, small audience, niche audience, whatever. But you do connect!
Take a theater example from another era. Off-off-Broadway in New York, in the 1970s. Theaters like La Mama had people flocking to them. For shows like Andrei Serban's productions of Greek tragedies, with the actors moving through the space, through the audience.
Were Greek tragedies relevant, in the punk and disco era, in the age of minimal music and visual art? Nobody asked! We knew La Mama spoke to us, and so we went.
We've got to get back to that place.
Lessons from history
Some more examples, just to show it once was done. And so could be done again.
Paris, 1891. The American soprano Sibyl Sanderson makes a sensation singing Massenet's Manon at the Opéra-Comique. So the company stops producing other works. Just does Manon, several times each week. Tout Paris is there. Artists, politicians, intellectuals, the demi-monde. (And note — Manon was performed 78 times at the Opéra-Comique in 1884, the year of its debut.)
Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), 1934. Shostakovich premieres Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The story we like to tell is that Stalin banned the opera. But not till two years later! Before that, it was a smash hit. 50 performances the first year, plus more in Moscow. While Shostakovich had a ballet running in another Leningrad theater, and something else in a third one. And had the top pop song in the Soviet Union, from one of the many film scores he wrote.
New York, early 1970s. People (me!) thronged to hear Steve Reich, when works like Drumming were premiered. We sat on the floor in places like La Mama (synergy between the arts!). And just about levitated. No one needed to engage us. The music did that. Just hearing that there'd be a performance was enough. Likewise Philip Glass.
London, a few years ago. The London Symphony did a weekend called Steve Reich and His Successors. 5000 people came, I read.
Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, a couple of years ago. Lang Lang gives a recital. I was there. Not the usual classical music crowd. Younger, more varied. Clearly he's got an audience of his own. On the wavelength.
Same, also a couple of years ago. An Estonian orchestra and program plays Arvo Pärt. 2200 seats filled. Not a classical music crowd. Free concert, sure. But (at least as far as I know) nothing was done to engage the audience, other than to announce Arvo Pärt. Didn't know he was so much on the wavelenth (ditto Lang Lang), but clearly he was.
Paris, 1902. Premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande. Not a piece for a popular audience, no sexy soprano in the lead. A piece for artists and intellectuals. But still, the wavelength. If you were any kind of advanced artist or thinker, you had to be there. (Much like Einstein on the Beach, when it played in NEw York in 1976.) Proust, who rarely left his hime, had a special telephone installed, reaching from the Opéra-Comique CHECK to his bedroom, so he could hear the music.
New York, a decade ago, more or less. 1000 people — looked like they were in their 20s and 30s — fill a none-too-comfortable church for two nights running, to hear a concert of contempory orchestral music. Almost no marketing. An advance piece in the NY Times, but these people most likely don't read newspapers. What drew them? Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist, who had a piece on the program. The piece wasn't at all a rock piece, but the crowd whooped for it, and likewise for the John Adams piece and the very long Gavin Bryars piece that were also played. The wavelength.
The moral of the story
I could go on and on and on. Example after example, past and present. An engaged arts audience, emerging on its own.
Doesn't have to be a large one. Small ones can be central to the wavelegnth. Like the old joke about the Velvet Underground: Only 10 people bought their first album, but all 10 went out and started influential bands.
So what's wrong with us, that we don't have this? How can we have fallen so low? If art is on the wavelength, an engaged audience — of whatever size — emerges by itself.
Oh, in a given case, people might at first be baffled. Or no one might know about you, so you have to do some marketing. Or some things never find an audience. In the days of Off-Off-Broadway, some theaters failed.
But OFf-Off-Broadway, as a movement, surged. It was on the wavelength. And when art is on the wavelength, its audience emerges as naturally as the art does.
Which of course leaves big questions about why we aren't on the wavelength now. And how we could get back on it. With the daunting possibility that some of us — including some established leaders of the arts — aren't people who can do this.
So then we wait for a new generation. Which is even now emerging.
I said — and linked to — more about audience engagement in my previous post.
Original Content: In the wavelength