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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Baseball, theater, and honoring the audience-Sam French

12/11/12, "School Days: Theater, Baseball, and Honoring the Audience," by Sam French, howlround.com, journal of theater commons

"I like theater. But I love baseball. A lot of my theater friends look down on baseball, and sports in general, and I really don’t get it. Theater and baseball aren’t all that different! They’re ultimately both about bringing people together as a community to collectively engage with a live experience. Anyone who’s heard the crowd roar at a Broadway house and at Shea Stadium can tell you that. Like theater, baseball knows that one of its greatest strengths is the excitement it generates in its audience from the tension created by narrative. And the players need that energy from the fans just as theater artists thrive on an engaged, receptive audience. Taking their similarities into account, I think there’s a lot that theater might learn from baseball—about narrative, about atmosphere, about community. Let’s start with what theater could learn from baseball about honoring its audience.

Toward the end of the 2010 baseball season, Tampa Bay Rays third-baseman Evan Longoria described fans’ low attendance at games as “disheartening.” The immediate reaction to Longoria’s comments ranged from criticism to outrage, from both Tampa Bay fans and national sports media. That same day I noticed a friend’s status on Facebook. My friend, a BFA theater student at a well-regarded school, was complaining about the audience’s “inappropriate” attire to a school production. The reaction to his status was almost universal in agreement: theater audiences showed a lack of respect to the “art” by coming to a show in shorts and flip-flops. The comment was similar to many I’d heard from theater artists disillusioned by audiences who don’t function the way they want them to: low attendance, audiences who don’t “get” the work—you get the picture.

There was some validity to Evan Longoria’s statements. The Rays, ranked by ESPN as one of the best deals in all of sports, were one game away from clinching a spot in the play-offs (for only the second time in franchise history). They were playing energetic, exciting ball, from the mound to the base paths to the outfield and by all standards putting on a good show. But for Longoria and others, their success wasn’t felt as such without the roar of the crowd. On some level, baseball is played for the fans.

Longoria was quick to apologize to the fans. The Tampa Bay Rays organization was even quicker to look for ways to let their fan base know how much they were valued. For the next home game, 20,000 tickets were made available, free to the public. Baseball organizations pride themselves on being institutions of entertainment, athleticism, competition, but they acknowledge, as the Tampa Bay Rays did, that they are, above all, a service to the public.. Similarly, regardless of the other wonderful things it is (art, entertainment) theater is a service. And its creators are in service to its audience.

I understand my friend’s complaint. Actors, directors, dramaturgs, managers and designers put hundreds of hours into production. Often, the emotional commitment is even more taxing than the time commitment. It’s easy to be sensitive. It’s easy to take anything but the utmost sign of reverence as disrespect. It’s easy to get angry with an audience, especially as a young and insecure artist. I’ve done it frequently. But I have to constantly remind myself that I started doing theater because I wanted to serve and create theater for an audience.

When someone chooses to go to the stadium or to the theater, he is choosing to spend his money and time on this experience we create as artists or players. Considering all we have to spend our money and time on, that’s a pretty amazing choice. It means he sees your work as making a valuable contribution to his life, just as he sees value in the work of his auto-mechanic, of his plumber, and of his doctor. We have a responsibility to honor his choice to spend time and money on us—to entertain, to inspire, and to challenge. In the best of times, we can even open a door to a new way of thinking. And if we see that audiences are not making the choice to spend their time and money with us, rather than complain, we’ve got to figure out why and do something about it. It’s on us to get the audience into the theater or the stadium.

Like Longoria learned, frustrating though it may be, we’ll never fill a house by complaining about or dishonoring its inhabitants. And here’s where we might learn something from baseball. When Longoria apologized and the Tampa Bay Rays offered 20,000 free tickets, they honored their fans and showed them how much they were valued. Of course this was a huge gesture and not one that is easily replicable or realistic for theaters. But as a young theater artist coming up in the industry, I am interested in figuring out ways we might work to make our audiences feel more honored, welcomed, and appreciated before they enter the theater and long after they’ve left."...

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Ed. note: In defense of Longoria's remark, Rays' ownership has for years openly criticized fans for not showing up. Longoria just repeated what's been said around him. A few years ago I heard Rays' radio guys doing it too, saying fans weren't very good since they didn't show up. The Rays do imaginative things to enhance the ballpark experience but nothing will change the fact that Florida is a state filled with poor people and a terrible economy. Florida has no industrial base so there's no reason to hope this will change. The cost of gas today eliminates discretionary travel for many people. MLB has done nothing to advance the culture of baseball across the state. During baseball playoffs a few years ago, I went by a few bar/restaurants that had tv's turned to sporting events. None of them had the baseball on. They had something else sports related on but not baseball.

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