Fan Service: Why Theater Audiences Need to Move from Patrons to Fans

With the Tonys coming up this Sunday, I’ve decided to turn this week’s Fan Service away from Internet memes or TV/movies, over to the more low-tech, intimate realm of theater. Mac Rogers, a playwright whom I admire for his breathtaking play Viral (follow him on Twitter @macwrites) retweeted this essay a few months ago. Posting to the theater blog Parabasis, a user named 99 Seats looks at the tenuous relationship between playwrights and the audiences that sustain them.

Although theater is supposed to be universal and far-reaching, the emphasis on the necessity of playwrighting degrees creates a vicious cycle where audiences are expected to be as highly-educated as the writers. The people making theater scold audiences for being uncultured hicks, then complain that they’re only catering to the upper class and that their work is no longer honest or genuine.

The only relationship that does work is that of a stuffy patron, and that itself is incredibly problematic:

What we have are patrons not fans. They’re in the room, not because they love us or what we do, but because it’s the right, classy thing to do to support the arts. And we resent them for it. We’re stuck in this teenage mindset of being surly at our parents when we ask for our allowances. No, no, no, we don’t want to go get an after-school job and have money of our own, but we don’t want the lecture we get when we ask for money to go to the movies. We just want to do what we want.

If theatre is going to thrive, really thrive in this new century and stop its slide into being a curio or an upper-class entertainment, we have to look at building fan culture, look at connecting with our audience more directly, more honestly and, frankly, with more love. One of the shows I’ve seen recently is The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G by Vampire Cowboys. Good luck getting in; it’s sold out. They’re always selling out. They have fans. And they do fan service. This show is flat-out amazing and further cements Qui as one of the best, bravest, smartest writers working today, but it’s also different and challenging and heartbreaking in a way that their shows haven’t been before. There’s still fan service, still the fights we can expect, the geek references, the sly winks. But they’re winks that let us know we’re all in on the joke, not that the joke’s on us.

This essay illustrates some of the problems with Broadway, where many shows get bloated with their own sky-high budgets and self-importance, or there simply aren’t original stories being told. However, this year looks to be turning away from those trends, with more irreverent shows like The Book of Mormon, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and The Motherfucker with the Hat getting nominated. These are the kinds of shows that invite fans to join in their rise, instead of observing with cool detachment.

The Tonys air Sunday at 8 p.m. EST on CBS — weekend editor Lucia Peters and I will be on-hand to cover all the happenings during and after the show.

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