Commentary: More artists need to become "experience designers"

DC-based playwright and theater blogger Gwydion Suilebhan,, 8/18/13

Let me ask you something: what's our real purpose as artists? I think our real purpose is to tell stories that help the world investigate and re-imagine itself. So if theater went the way of the transistor radio -- into obsolescence, but not complete uselessness -- we'd find other ways to live that purpose. In fact, many artists already have; theater is just one kind of storytelling technology, and it's been losing market share steadily for a century. We artists have all sorts of digital tools we can play with now. And if we want to be prosperous, we really ought to play with them more. So what if we all started thinking of ourselves as content providers and experience designers, rather than theater artists? Might we start to see (for example) the writing of blog posts as an extension of our core value, rather than a necessary marketing evil? Might we make short films not to overwhelm people with "trailers," but to expand the worlds we're creating beyond the stage a bit? Might we think about lobby decoration as an extension of scenic design somehow? Might we think of Twitter not as an interruption, but as a welcome means by which we engage in a two-way connection with our audiences? Might we, in time, begin to redefine theater so that we don't simply think of it, by default, as real live human beings talking in front of other real live human beings, but as the practice of using any available technology to engage audience members in transformative experiences?


Commentary: The arts are focusing too much on creating experiences

Judith H. Dobrzynski, The New York Times, 8/11/13

The quest for an experience has taken over giant portions of our lives. We constantly post what we're doing and where we are, letting friends know how active we are. Trying to keep pace, cultural institutions are changing, too, offering more of the kinds of participatory experiences available almost everywhere else. Playwrights now turn theatergoers into participants or let them choose the ending. Museums stage sleepovers and dance parties. Some of these initiatives are necessary, even good. But in the process of adapting, our cultural treasuries are multitasking too much, becoming more alike, and shedding the very characteristics that made them so special -- especially art museums. The thrill of standing before art seems not quite exciting enough for most people. I've seen museums offer people the opportunity to participate in curating exhibitions, choosing which artworks should be sold to raise money, deciding whether an altered painting should be restored to its original condition, advising on the design of gallery installations and more. Shouldn't those decisions be left to the experts? If not, what do they do? Museums are embedding interactive displays in their painting galleries. They are gamifying them. This is all in the name of participation and experience -- also called visitor engagement -- but it changes the very nature of museums, and the expectations of visitors. It changes who will go to museums and for what. For decades, museums have offered social experiences and that is good. Now is the balance shifting too far to the experience? Are they losing what makes them unique? Should museums really follow the path of "experience" businesses? If they do, something will be lost.


Reply: We should focus less on "an experience," more on art appreciation

Deborah Markow, in a Letter to the Editor of the NY Times, 8/16/13

As a teacher of art history, I believe museums are taking the easy way out when they try to pander to the public looking for "an experience." They are seeking to involve more people in a way that will increase attendance, a wonderful goal indeed. But the true problem is that Americans seem to be afraid of museums and of anything but exhibitions of photography and contemporary art. They have not been exposed to the history of art, to the development of art as it relates to the culture. They do not understand its historic purpose, nor the stories depicted, whether biblical or classical. I believe that rather than creating rain rooms and the opportunity to meet the artist, we should be educating all our children to love, appreciate and feel at ease in the presence of the great art of the past. Only then will museums truly fulfill their purpose and their role as a place of contemplation and appreciation.


Reply: For Pete's sake, let the kid dance!

Linda Essig on her personal blog Creative Infrastructure, 8/14/13

Several semesters ago, a discussion with my arts entrepreneurship students about barriers to market entry turned into a discussion about [physical] barriers.  I commented that fixed seating in a new arts facility with a youth audience created a barrier to their engagement. A student said "But the kids need to be taught to sit down and be quiet when they go to a performance." I responded "Why?... When a 6-year-old hears music, what do they want to do?" "Dance," [answered] another student. For many children, their first experience in a theatre or concert hall is being told to sit still and be quiet. I thought about this discussion as I read Judith Dobrzynski's opinion piece in the NY Times. In it, she claims...visitor engagement "changes the very nature of museums, and the expectations of visitors." That, to me, is a good thing.  Arts organizations have for years been decrying their declining and graying subscription bases.  If visitors change their expectations, perhaps the sound of membership rosters circling the drain will not be so loud.  Which brings me back to my classroom discussion.  Carl Jung would say that art connects to our inner child.  If you want a first-timer to voluntarily return to the concert hall or museum year after year, for Pete's sake, let the kid dance!


Commentary: In era of participatory theater, should critics review the audience?

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News, 8/18/13

Spending several hours a week in the dark with actors and hundreds of strangers is what theater critics do. No news flash in that -- or that it's my job to review what's on stage. But is it also my task to assess what's happening around me in other seats? As a rule, I avoid commenting on the audience, since you don't know who's in those seats. It's no secret that press performances for shows tend to be stuffed with friends of the production and the producers. So I try to look beyond the pros ("the audience went wild") and the cons ( "masses fled at intermission"). Better to focus on performances and not the crowd. Then again, these days, productions on and Off Broadway are determined to get the audience in on the act. "Immersive stagings" have been around for ages. But this style has heated up recently [as many] theatergoers get pulled onstage for a cameo. I got pulled up on stage to play a dead body. I can't say that was much fun (I prefer the sidelines to center stage). Or, for that matter, that it made me appreciate the hard-charging show any more than I did. But I'll take being an involuntary recruit to putting up with annoying audience behavior -- and there's plenty of it -- that would earn zero stars. I still cringe remembering the woman in front of me at Dreamgirls who had an ongoing phone conversation. Then there's late arrivals who step on your feet and block your view -- you know who you are. [And] automatic screaming standing ovations have diluted this form of appreciation. But it's all part of the communal experience, and it's what makes theater alive, exciting and unpredictable. I'm glad to be in the dark with the rest of the audience. But I don't need to shed light on them.

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