Have you thought about increasing the number of live performances you see this year?
Each year, I try to keep track of the live performances I attend and then at year’s end, I look back at the list and reflect upon what those experiences meant to me. Despite also being an arts administrator and recreational arts practitioner, I consider my role as an audience member to be the one that will have the greatest impact on the arts into the future. The arts need an audience, and I need to be a part of something alive…on some days, more than I need food or sleep.
Disputably, the first live performance I ever saw was a high school production of The Wizard of Oz. The memory I have is that after the performance, Glinda the Good Witch came out into the audience—I now understand that it was to greet friends and family. But there she was…just a few feet from me. It was amazing; my four-year-old world was changed.
As a seventh grader, my world was changed again. I learned of a new Broadway musical with a funny French name. I learned the lyrics backwards and forwards, and had even read all fourteen hundred and ninety-seven pages of the novel before seeing the first national tour at the Fabulous Fox in St. Louis the next year.
As I sat there in the audience of Les Miserables that first time, and indeed each subsequent time, I was changed. I was so self-prepared to be in the audience, and the magic of it resonated beyond what I could have possibly imagined. I continue to be mesmerized by the way the musical’s creators have crafted each theatrical choice to support this story of the human condition.
But preparation is not always required for a life-changing audience experience. During high school, while attending an arts summer program, I saw a presentation by the Chicago Moving Company. I remember color and light, flowing fabric, and a strong engagement with the story the dance was telling.
In my work at Sangamon Auditorium, UIS, I am in the business of developing audiences. This means getting people into the building for the first time. It means getting them to come back again. It means developing future audiences in order to sustain high quality performing arts programming for years to come.
In this field, we labor and labor over counteracting these statements: “Audiences are dying.” “Nobody’s going to the theater/the symphony/the ballet anymore.” We will continue to hear these woes. But about a year ago, I heard Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, speak at an event and he acknowledged that over the last one hundred years in this country, there has always been fearful talk about audiences dying.
Kaiser acknowledged that people do get busy for a period of time in their early adulthood, but stated that there is evidence that if a strong foundation in the arts was laid between birth and age fifteen, then when these adults get through that busy period and find themselves with time to pursue hobbies, there’s a strong chance they’ll come back to the arts.
In a program funded by PNC Bank, I have the awesome opportunity to visit with Springfield Urban League Head Start students before they come to watch a children’s play at the Auditorium. The most significant part of the visit is to help them understand their role as a live audience member. I do teach them to applaud when actors bow, but mostly I teach them to be themselves and drink it all in.
I can’t know if my three-year-old son, who is named for a rock band, will take to any particular art form vocationally. There are only two things I know about his future experiences with the arts:
1) He will take piano lessons for as long as he lives in my house, because I have never heard anyone say, “I’m so glad my mother let me quit taking piano lessons.”
2) of course, he will be an audience member.
How about you?