Becoming a Bolder Audience

When a performance can happen anywhere, the audience experience is gloriously undefined. No stage, no seat number, there's freedom to engage in the work. But as audience members, sometimes we don't.

Immersive and interdisciplinary performances in unconventional spaces, like museum galleries, are becoming a regular part of the cultural landscape. But when we pick up our ticket at the box office, and are directed by an usher, it's a very different experience than walking into an open gallery or space. With the innovation in performance, there also needs to be innovation in how we view and consume our live arts.

Artists are thrusting audiences into new territory, but it's not until the premiere of the work that they actually see how people interact with the piece -- what occurs "in nature" as new mediums and experiences are introduced.

I, personally, love unconventional performances, and revel in the opportunity to immerse myself in a performative environment and interact (when possible) with a work. When La Celestina, the video opera in the Met's Vélez Blanco Patio premiered in March, I got right in there, exploring the space and experiencing the performance from different angles, both visually and acoustically. But then again, as part of the Met Museum Presents team (live arts series at the Met) I had the opportunity to work with the creator of the work. I knew what was expected of the audience before there even was an audience. So not fair, right?

For performances like La Celestina, or in any non-theater space, audiences head right for the walls and off to the side. Trying to stay as "out of the way" as possible. Their experience, therefore, is not as immersive as it's meant to be. We are not trained and accustomed as audiences to step into the center of a room and performance, to get up-close and personal.

But that's an interesting discovery. When audiences are engaged in new experiences, how do they interact with the piece? How can they take it all in? I've seen this in untraditional spaces all over the city, for impromptu performances, as well as ticketed events that do not have defined seating. As audiences, we are wallflowers.

Over time, and being an observer of the creative process, I've developed my own way of enjoying an untraditional performance in a free-form environment. Like anyone, I want to get the most out of a performance opportunity.

la celestina

So, consider these the next time your find yourself in an untraditional performance:

Have a Short Attention Span
Really allow yourself to explore the space. If there are elements of a performance springing from various locations, chances are you are meant to experience them. A perspective shift is often encouraged in untraditional performances. If a work is created three dimensionally, you're part of the performance just by being present, and there is beauty to be discovered in multiple places. By remaining stationary, you're missing out on a more dynamic experience.

Don't Sweat the Background Info
Sometimes a piece has a story, and sometimes it doesn't. If you are familiar with the piece prior to the performance that can be great, but it's certainly not a necessity. Usually contemporary live arts have a discernable impetus and inspiration, however it should be just as entertaining and enjoyable if you have that knowledge or not. In fact, occasionally it can be liberating to just truly sit back and enjoy. You can always read the synopsis afterwards. Be a bit more carefree about "the story."

Immerse Yourself
Meaning, be less of a wallflower. If the performance allows, try experiencing a work in a more central location. It's not always easy, but it's worthwhile. Patrick Eakin Young, the creator of La Celestina, said to me (and it kind of stuck): "Long ago, we must have been taught to stay out of the way of the dinosaurs or something." Get out in the open space!

A couple of years ago, I was watching an open gallery concert, and the composer John Zorn was standing next to me for a little while. I was off to the side, admittedly by a wall. After a few minutes he moved himself into the center of the gallery, closer to the musicians and took a seat right on the floor. It was a revelation. You have to immerse yourself, no one will do it for you.

Stay a While
If you have the time, enjoy the entire performance. Especially if events are free, people tend to walk right through. But by indulging in a full performance, you will have seized a more memorable experience. On occasion, if there are multiple showings or performances, I have stayed for multiple viewings. There is always something fresh, invigorating, and unseen the first time. Be afraid of missing the best part, and stay for the whole show.