“Be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours.” -Salman Rushdie
Recently I did something that I’ve rarely done in my life as a theater lover – I walked out of a production at intermission. Was I offended by a controversial subject? Well no, I did make it through Jerry Springer: The Opera after all. I was merely bored out of my mind by densely esoteric content. I didn’t become enraged and demand the play close, I merely chalked it up to a difference in artistic preferences. But I still left, and afterwards it upset me that I’d allowed myself to close my mind, and I started thinking about local theater controversy. As a former theater professional it was ingrained in me that we have a responsibility to open minds through art. But what happens when the audience won’t listen? Are DC audiences more likely to be vocal or take offense? How do theater companies handle that reaction, especially as its based on content and not value?
I set out to talk to three artistic directors of companies at various levels of development and experience with negative audience reaction to content- Allison Arkell Stockman at Constellation Theatre Company, Kate Bryer at Imagination Stage, and Ari Roth at Theater J – to get their thoughts. Not surprisingly, a common theme emerged, one which as a theater lover worries me greatly. When we move away from an audience’s desire to learn and instead towards its desire for safe entertainment, we’re in trouble as a society.