by 99 Seats
Well, since I'm talking now, I might as well keep talking, right?
I've been on a run of seeing rock shows lately. I've seen about three in the last month, month and half, which is a lot for me. I love rock and roll and I love live shows, but I never see them. It takes too much advance planning for me, or at least I think it does. But in the last few weeks, there were shows I was excited enough about to make the plans. Or the tickets fell in my lap. Either way, I've been rocking out.
I've also been on a little tear of seeing theatre (both readings and productions), too. Which has allowed for some interesting comparisons. I don't think most of this stuff is new, really, but it's hitting home. Maybe because the differences are so stark.
Every rock band is different and every interaction with their fans is different. The Mountain Goats fans want to hear the obscure things and are insistent about it, they want John to interact with them directly. I saw The Hold Steady on Friday and their fans are...just freaking crazy. From the second they hit the stage, the place exploded into a hot sweaty mess and pogoed through every song. I've seen them a few times now and their shows are always great, high energy and high octane...and yet, they're almost always exactly the same. The fans don't need to call out songs because they're guaranteed to play your favorite songs. Because all of the fans have the same favorite songs. Craig Finn's patter is almost always the same, but it's always genuine and heartfelt. It's a terrific experience.
One thing that remains the same, though, no matter who I see is this: a sense of gratitude towards the fans. The fans are invited in, served happily by the artists, recognized as important. At the end of nearly every Hold Steady show, Craig says, "We are, you are, we all are The Hold Steady." That's the vibe of a band. They know and appreciate that, without the dedication of the fans, they don't have jobs. And they appreciate that. Sure, it's a feedback loop: we give them our love and money, but they return it by acknowledging our love and money. They play the songs they know we want to hear. It's not pandering to make their audience happy. That's the point. And, as fans, we sign on to go with them on their journey. The Mountain Goats started out as one guy in his bedroom with a tape machine and a guitar. Now he makes music with a full band. Yeah, some folks don't like the new stuff as much as the old, but they still love the band and come out and see them.
Why? Why do we buy the bad albums of our favorite bands? Why do we still go see their shows? That's the question we hit upon here, in this thread. Because we're fans and we love what they do. And they love us.
I had a reading of a short play of mine at a new New Play Festival at my alma mater over the weekend. A fellow alum who is now an adjunct professor led the talkbalks after the readings and when he started them, he said, "The audience is the most important part of this process." A theatre professional friend of mine with me leaned over and rolled her eyes at that. That's our attitude. We treat our audiences so poorly, really. We aim to shock, insult, annoy, defy their expectations as good things. There is a long tradition in theatre of looking down our noses at what our audience wants.
Again, it's the weird contradiction in how we think about our field. We say that theatre is this universal, natural impulse that makes us human. But you need years and years of arts education and probably a B.A. to actually understand it and enjoy it properly. We judge our audiences as being insuffciently educated to really grasp what we do and then complain that all we're playing to are upper class white folks. What we have are patrons not fans. They're in the room, not because they love us or what we do, but because it's the right, classy thing to do to support the arts. And we resent them for it. We're stuck in this teenage mindset of being surly at our parents when we ask for our allowances. No, no, no, we don't want to go get an after-school job and have money of our own, but we don't want the lecture we get when we ask for money to go to the movies. We just want to do what we want.
If theatre is going to thrive, really thrive in this new century and stop its slide into being a curio or an upper-class entertainment, we have to look at building fan culture, look at connecting with our audience more directly, more honestly and, frankly, with more love. One of the shows I've seen recently is The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G by Vampire Cowboys. Good luck getting in; it's sold out. They're always selling out. They have fans. And they do fan service. This show is flat-out amazing and further cements Qui as one of the best, bravest, smartest writers working today, but it's also different and challenging and heartbreaking in a way that their shows haven't been before. There's still fan service, still the fights we can expect, the geek references, the sly winks. But they're winks that let us know we're all in on the joke, not that the joke's on us.
This isn't about attracting young audience, or millenials, or whatever cock-a-mamie marketing idea being put out there now. It's about changing the way we look at our missions, our interactions. Patron culture has its end. It's time for a change.