An Audience Manifesto
By Steven Dietz
There is absolutely nothing to support the notion that contemporary plays should reflect the prevailing attitudes of the community. Prevailing attitudes (social, sexual, religious, political) do not need the support of artists, they have the weight of governments, corporations, advertisers and the media behind them. When we, as audiences, demand this from our artists, we are selling ourselves short. And we are asking the theatre, this marvelous, grand accident of an art form, to perform pedestrian tasks. Demand more.
The highest challenge you, as an audience, can issue to your theatre artists is to demand that they run through the minefields before you do. To demand that they make the mistakes, confront the idiocy and revel in the excesses (social, sexual, religious, political) of the culture in the metaphorical safety of the theatre (where you can watch and judge), before it hits you in the bloody maelstrom of the world. Push your artists ahead of you through the dark room. If they fall, you'll know to watch your step. If they bloody their heads, you'll know to duck. If they look foolish, perhaps you'll linger longer at your mirror. And if they race forward, smiling and unscathed, you'll know you can toss yourself forward with abandon.
This is a daunting challenge for those of us who are theatre artists, one we seldom live up to. But don't let us lower our standards. Don't let our questions get safer, smaller. We should encourage our theatre artists to go where we dare not. We should thank them (grudgingly, at times) for revealing to each of us, individually, what our boundaries are, social, sexual, religious, political. We should applaud them when they help us either draw the line or, willingly, step over it. Ask that your theatre artists talk about what you talk about at the dinner table, but also demand that they talk about and show you, the things you're afraid to bring up at the dinner table, at work, with friends.
Art is often made in a fury. And we can learn more, in one instant on stage, from someone's fury, how it engages, divides or offends us than we can from years of sanitized, community-approved work. Believe me if writers thought that taking 'f***' and 's***' out of their plays would stop civil rights abuses, end sexism, feed children or clothe the homeless they would. If writers thought they were harming the moral fabric of tolerance and respect by suggesting that maybe AIDS exists, or maybe kids should be told that sex (and its inherent dangers) exists, or suggesting that maybe lust and lying and corruption exist and flourish, they would do otherwise. But the fact is that sex and beauty, hatred and disease, truth and manipulation, hunger and faith exist concurrently in the culture. And to ask artists to address only "pleasant" or "nice" or "approved" aspects of the culture is not only small-minded, it is patently impossible. It is contradiction and complexity that make up the body politic, and to demand simplification is to accept a lie.
There are two things you should know about censorship. First: if someone is denied the chance to present their work, no matter how controversial (socially, sexually, religiously, politically) that is censorship. Period.
Second: Censorship has nothing whatsoever to do with ridding something from the culture. It has everything to do with instilling something in the culture. The person or organization that claims to be protecting you and yours from evil is attempting to blanket you and yours with a belief system. Censorship is the advocacy by one group of a specific set of ideas at the exclusion of all others. The world is messy, art is messy, but censorship is easy. It is the demand that we hold the mirror up to a nature that does not exist.
So what can you do as an audience?
Demand not to be sheltered from ideas, language or images. Demand the right to make up your own mind about your interests, pleasures and boundaries. Demand not only the right to escape, but the right to be engaged.
Demand newness. The theatre is not about nostalgia. The theatre is not a museum. Plays don't hang on walls oblivious to time. The theatre is a rehearsal of the concerns of the present moment. Whether the given text is old or new, demand that it move you forward.
Demand to laugh. Not just at others, but at yourself.
Demand more from your critics than did he/she like it or not? Demand to know the context of a given play in the author's body of work as well as in the theatre's body of work.
Demand that theatres stop using critics' quotes to sell their plays. Until they do, all their carping about the unfair power of critics is absolutely hypocritical.
Demand leadership. Encourage your theatre artists and administrators to follow their mission statement, not their exit policies. Any theatre must, like all of us, grow, change and evolve. It can't be asked to provide its audience with what they've grown accustomed to. A theatre that tries to be all things to all people inevitably fails everyone.
Demand no dress codes, spoken or unspoken.
Demand an end to the farcical belief that theatres need to educate their audiences before they can affect, provoke or entertain them. Tell your theatre that you're ready for anything, and that you plan to let them know exactly what you think of it, good or bad.
Demand fun. Demand fury. Getting your money's worth is not good enough. Get your heart and mind's worth.
As artists and audiences, together we share the theatre. Together we share this grand, eloquent, messy, unpredictable experiment. Let's revel in that.
© Steven Dietz, American Theatre, January 1993.