LivingArts: The Unattended Audience

If you are a theatre watcher or a theatre maker then there is one thing you know about your friends and family: some of them will go and see theatre and some of them won’t. People who don’t often go to see theatre may see a few shows in their lifetime: as a part of a school trip, or when they happen to be in New York City. People who like to go see theatre may see a few shows every year - unfortunately for theatre artists, there are fewer people in this latter category. I have often asked myself ‘Why don’t more people go see live theatre?’  Michael Kras asked himself that same question and decided to get an answer.

In an effort to determine what might inspire more people to explore the art he loves, Kras created an easy online quiz asking people who don’t often go why they don’t see theatre more often. I saw this quiz and quickly shared it on my social media and so did many others. I couldn’t resist asking Kras what inspired this simple approach and what he had learned. According to Kras, the survey produced some incredibly interesting and, in some cases, surprising results.

Kras says he was inspired to create the survey after his entry into the 2015 Hamilton Fringe Festival attracted smaller audiences than he had been hoping for. ‘We opened to a house of four people, half of which was family,’ he recalls. The venue was an intimate space with a 40 seat capacity but filling it became a challenge. During the festival Kras did his best not to give in to negative thinking ‘When you're in the middle of something like that, it's so easy to project your frustration onto everything else and play the blame game: “My show is getting great reviews, I believe in this piece, it's entertaining and important, it's the audience’s fault.”’

After the festival he was inspired to act, and the survey was released this August. Kras tells me he passionately believes that it is the artist’s responsibility to discover what the audience wants and to bring that to life. ‘I am not saying that we must sacrifice our art and pander to our audience with limited regard for our own artistic voice. But I am saying that making art to serve ourselves is a tragically selfish approach to what is the most generous institution in the world.’ Kras also recognised that the problem of low attendance wasn’t just isolated to his production. ‘Theatre is a shared, present, human experience. So the audience must be there, but often isn't.’ Seeing this as a challenge rather than a terminal diagnosis, Kras decided that if he wanted to know what the people who might have been sitting in those empty seats wanted to see then he would just have to ask them.

So what did simply asking the untapped audience yield? Kras isn’t yet ready to release all his results but he tells me something that is so simple it may sometimes get lost: ‘My survey revealed that the most important factor in a piece of theatre for an audience is, by a landslide, its entertainment factor. Really, what other reason would anybody have for spending the time, money, and effort to go to the theatre?’ He doesn’t feel that entertaining an audience means that new works should avoid being thought provoking, challenging and sometimes disconcerting. Rather he feels that entertaining the audience is what creates their investment in the story being told and ultimately allows the artist to be provocative. Kras sums up: ‘Provoke me, make me think and question, unsettle me, upset me, enrage me, but please entertain me.’

In my discussion with this young passionate theatre maker I am left with a strong sense of how much Kras values his audience, even the audience he has never seen. I am excited to see what can come of creating such an open dialogue and will be following Kras to find out where the opportunity of an empty house takes him. If you would like to follow him check out