Jan 17, 2014

Is Recognition Useful?

Success advice from "successful" bloggers often tells would-be creative-types to fail more, Fail harder, fail often. Failure is the gateway to success, right? 

Designer Frank Chimero (definitely not in the above category) points out that, "Oddly, only successful people say failure is necessary, because anyone who has truly failed in a meaningful, unrecoverable way would advise you to stay away from that shit at all costs."

I had two interesting things happened last night.

First, the announcement that my friend Jeff was one of the winners of the Dallas Observer "Mastermind" Award (my other friend David was also a winner this year) was released.

Secondly, for the first time ever my theatre company Audacity Theatre Lab called a show because no audience members showed up. I consider this a failure.

Here's where things come together. The cancelled show in question features my friend and colleague, the same Jeff mentioned above. It is a solo show. He is, in fact, the only actor in it.

My grandfather used to have a theory when trying a new restaurant. He always looked in the parking lot when he pulled up to the establishment and if no more than a few cars were there, he moved on. "I'm not eating someplace if it is not good enough for other people to eat at," he'd say as he drove back to some place he was already familiar with. His reasoning was that the quality of the new place could not have been very good if more people weren't dining there when he drove up.

I have been thinking about the nature of recognition since last night. If we take into account, as context, only those two statements that started off this post one thing would seem to affect the other. But, as you may guess, it is not that simple. Recognition does not necessarily translate into something useful, like putting butts in seats and lack of attendance does not necessarily reflect the quality of a piece of art or performance.

The show, THE LAST CASTRATO, has had several successful runs in other places. It sold out as part of a festival in Adison, Texas a few years ago. It has been to the New York international Fringe Festival. And here at home, for this particular run, it has recieved ample marketing. It is listed on all the places there are to list productions in the DFW area. It was mentioned in one of the "best bets of the week" videos by the critic for the Dallas Morning News. In short, word about the show is out there. As I have been doing a lot of that marketing of the show, THE LAST CASTRATO particularly on Facebook, I have noticed that Jeff has been the overwhelming draw for the show. Which is good, because, like I said, it is a one-person show. 

Jeff has a solid fan base. There are a several hardcore Audacity followers and some of my community, too, who have come out to the production (but as director, producer and designer I am behind the scenes on this one), but mostly the potential and actual audience feedback has been "you gotta see this performer." This makes the irony (or is it coincidence?) of Jeff winning the Mastermind Award on the same day as absolutely no one shows up for the solo show currently featuring him pretty damn overwhelming.

I am seldom bothered by small audiences. As long as a few people see my stage work, I am content. Theatre, on the whole, never does and never will garner the same mass appeal and large audiences as other media, like television, movies or even sporting events. I have chosen to play in that sandbox anyway.  Also, I am in it for the long haul and I know that the leverage of time and persistence will ultimately be on my side. If I just keep making solidly awesome stuff, people will slowly catch on and that momentum will build and build. And I have really only just begun this process in earnest. That said, I have never had to cancel a show since revamping Audacity in 2008. There has always been some audience. It is only with this complete absence of audience that I am left to ponder on the circumstances surrounding that situation.

I am also really happy for Jeff. He is a good friend and a solid colleague and the attention he is receiving for the youth-performing-adult-material-for-adults concept of this theatre company is novel, particularly for the local scene. The recognition is warranted to a fair degree. When I refer to him above I am actually referring to his local recognition or notoriety, a thing he is both in control and not in control of. He is not, I am allowing, directly to blame for the lack of audience members. But he also, it should be pointed out, has done very little to mobilize and rally the fan base that he has. He doesn't really shout from the rooftops that he is in a show. I am not sure if this is apathy on his part or just ignorance. Either way, getting him to actively and relentlessly inform his fan base about what he is involved in (outside of his youth-performing-adult-material-for-adults theatre stuff) is nearly impossible. He usually sits back and lets the people he is acting for do the heavy lifting of promotions, marketing, and publicity. In this case, of the two people driving the production, he is the main and only draw.

Potential audiences do not respond like my grandfather does to new restaurants. Many agree Jeff is an appealing draw. But that isn't going to necessarily get them out to actually see him. Drawing in absolutely no audience members is something maybe expected or tolerated of an unknown actor. Jeff could just as well have been the equivalent of a new restaurant, or an unknown actor, with no one at it just as much as he is a familiar establishment with plenty of cars out front.

So, I am left pondering the nature of recognition. Again, what is it good for? And what take-aways can we get from this situation? Here was an actor who won, basically, a popularity award from a local alt weekly and was presented with this award, ironically, when his actual popularity was so ineffective that no audience members came to see him perform.

In a cautionary way, it presents a challenge to performers to go beyond the simply and limited role of simply performing. As a producer, I will choose and actor who has a following over a equally talented actor who no one knows about. An actor, in the contemporary theatre, can no longer just "show up" like they are doing the production a favor, perform and then leave. Instead, fan bases must be fostered and nurtured and mobilized. And this must be done specificaly by the person whose fan base it is.

If recognition is useful at all, it is useful to the degree it gets and keeps audiences involved and interested in what an artist is doing. It is possible, perhaps, that recognition, if handled properly, can put butts in seats. If not handled properly, well then... failure. 

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