Redefining Audiences

  • Jordan Tannahill
    Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Kathleen Gallagher
    Why Theatre Matters: Urban Youth, Engagement, and a Pedagogy of the Real. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lourdes Arciniega

Given urban youth apathy, Kathleen Gallagher argues for the value of drama as a tool for students to reassert their identity and reconnect with their community. In an extensive and in-depth five-year study of four schools in Toronto, Boston, Taipei and Lucknow, Gallagher and her team interview students and teachers to chronicle how theatre courses can improve and change students’ lives and their outlook on their sometimes uninspiring future.

Often students’ confrontational attitudes towards theatre productions or their lack of interest in performing stems from ingrained prejudices and lack of opportunity to communicate their fears, desires, and ambitions. However, through theatre-making activities, students interact with fellow students with whom they would not otherwise consider fraternizing. This collaborative engagement, rather than becoming confrontational, becomes enlightening, as each side discovers and supports others’ ideas in achieving a common goal. Second and third year students, for example, practiced Verbatim Theatre, “a form of documentary theatre using the actual words of people, often in direct first-person address or testimonial style, to raise issues relevant to a particular community and to activate broader social engagement.” As students often interview family members or mentors, students begin to see others differently, and to find their own place in the world.

The introspective nature of drama classes allows students create a persona through which they can work through some of their issues. Students perform their conflicts, and this public performance allows other students in the audience share in the experience. Gallagher foregrounds the importance of performing “the power of the real,” of staging situations with which students can identify and question. These productions therefore allow the individual story to become part of the collective experience, as these plays “served as a catalyst into a much broader discussion about race, youth, and representation,” notes Gallagher.

One of the most useful components of Gallagher’s research is her focus on pedagogy and the role of the teacher. Through several interviews with instructors, Gallagher notes that a drama teacher has to place students’ work and their world as the driving force for pedagogical work. Since teachers are fellow artists, the relationship between instructor and student is also often malleable. Teachers share an artistic bond with students, a desire to foster creative expression, and thus must support risk-taking while also nurturing a safe, respectful environment for theatre- making by the next generation of theatre practitioners.

To combat the commercialism that drives some of the current theatre productions, and hinders the work of emerging theatre practitioners, Tannahill eloquently and persuasively proposes a renegotiation of the relationship between playwrights and spectators. In Theatre of the Unimpressed, Tannahill justifies the need for more financial, cultural, and audience support for the work of new and multidisciplinary theatre by first showing how theatre practices to date have alienated audiences and/or created a passive and indifferent theatregoer.

By interviewing one hundred theatre patrons across five countries on their attitudes towards theatre, Tannahill discovered that half of them enjoyed predictable, ready-made theatre, whereas the other half wanted more risk-taking, innovative theatre. Tannahill warns against ongoing state cultural funding for “Museum of Theatre” productions of canonical plays that do not revitalize the story for the audience. When a boring or predictable play, spectators often take a complacent attitude towards the story being told. There is no investment in the experience, and therefore no emotional reward for the theatregoer, who often feels trapped out of a sense of obligation and decorum into watching the full play. Tannahill argues for the value of a theatrical experience that can “disorient and reorient us.” In theatre, often a reflection of an ideal or idealized reality, practitioners and spectators can try out failure, and learn from the experience.

Tannahill believes that a theatre that challenges and invites an audience to be active participants will be key to reinventing the art form. If theatre is to become vital and relevant, then the infrastructures have to be redesigned, so that “our theatres must conform to the needs of our art, not the other way around,” notes Tannahill. In a twenty-first century environment that prioritizes liveliness, immediacy, and the unexpected, theatre can provide a relevant counterpoint to screen-focused audiences. Ultimately, theatre productions can and should be a medium for personal and social redefinition by valuing the presence of a live audience and rewarding spectators with a unique, immersive, and memorable experience.

 



This review “Redefining Audiences” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 138-139.

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