What “Bros on Broadway” Says About How the Theater Looks at the Public

A Broadway lovin’ bro.

Knowing our readership, many people have already seen TheaterMania’s “Bros on Broadway” review, which has been generating a lot of discussion this week. If by chance you haven’t read it, in general, it’s the first installment in a series based on the premise that: “A lot of people don’t do theater. It’s not that they don’t want to. It’s just that they don’t know they want to.” So TheaterMania is apparently going to start sending “bros” to the theater, like this week’s–an “average guy” who’s a barback, frat brother, World of Warcraft gamer, and, uh, “Pan American Middleweight Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Champion.” (You know, totes average.) Anyway, since we’re now known as the “Everyone’s a Critic” people here at Culturebot, more than one person has sent this to me (and I assume Andy), so I thought I’d share my own general response.

First, I don’t particularly find this idea compelling (in fact, I think it’s kind of mean in execution). And second, this is not what we’re talking about at Culturebot at all when we talk about critical horizontalism.

With regard to the first point, this isn’t an initiative about criticism at all, just to make that clear. It’s essentially audience development. And it’s not overly original. Outside of New York, regional theaters, operas, and other arts organizations regularly undertake large-scale efforts to draw in new audiences in the belief that if only more people experience art, then more people will like art and continue to engage with art. I have no problem with this, I’m just saying that at its heart, TheaterMania’s gimmick isn’t all that original.

But at a deeper level, my issue with the philosophy behind initiatives like this is that it makes one of two assumptions (possibly both) about all the people who don’t regularly experience art: that either (a) they don’t like the arts because they’ve never experienced the arts; or (b) that they don’t appreciate the value of the arts, because they’ve never experienced the arts.

Both are really problematic ways to look at potential audiences, and say more about the arts (or the institutional arts world, to be more exact) than they do the public. In both cases, the assumption is that there’s some reason people don’t “do” theater (or whatever art form). But that’s a ridiculous way to look at the arts. The “bro” was sent to see Cyrano on Broadway;  the only reasoning the article suggests for sending this guy to see this particular work is that he makes money on the side helping other guys write their online dating profiles. That’s hanging an awful lot of weight on one tiny hook to try to convince a non-theater goer to start liking theater because in this one play this guy kind of does something similar to what our bro does.

In other words, I’d never personally suggest a show to someone based on so little. Who would?

The problem underlying this is the assumption that “theater” is something we must convince others to like. Not particular artists or aesthetic practices or anything actually having to do with the varieties of how theater can operate; no, “theater” itself. It’s an existential thing. Apparently you either like it or you don’t. It’s the “butts in seats” mentality dressed up as something more interesting, as an approach to demonstrating either the importance or the entertainment value of art (whichever sticks, I suppose).

Which is silly. This guy isn’t obligated to like Cyrano anymore than anyone else is. Trying to convince people that “theater” is something “important” is tilting at windmills; people will generally think theater is important or fun when they see works that either entertain or otherwise cause them to see a value in the form. And sadly, I doubt Cyrano–or the majority of Broadway and Off-Broadway–is going to do that. Because this is theater made by people who actually do “like theater,” and they’re making decisions about what they want to see and what they think is important. I’d go so far as to argue that the entire set-up TheaterMania has constructed around “Bros for Broadway,” with its assumptions about how non-theater people think, what they might like, how we can glibly pigeonhole them (he’s a jock and a frat guy–based on a couple behaviors he’s clearly way different than us!), is indicative of how the broader theater world looks at their audiences. It’s naive and judgmental.

None of which is to say that there aren’t substantial barriers to getting new audiences engaged and invested in theater, most of which come down to fluency. As people become less and less fluent in the form, less and less comfortable with how theater actually works, it’s harder and harder to convince them to accept the high entry cost to the field–by which I mean paying relatively expensive ticket prices over and over again until they become acculturated to how theater operates and develop a genuine desire to experience it more.

When Culturebot talks about everyone being a critic, our point is generally that (a) anyone is smart enough to get something out of art, and (b) that people’s experiences are not inherently invalid. Increased fluency in the form helps achieve point (a); but point (b) can’t be discounted out of hand, even as we have to try to help people navigate initial discomfort and misgivings. The ideology driving an effort like “Bros on Broadway” is disagreeing with both. The idea is to instill in people a priori the value or importance of theater, while trying to prevent them from being discouraged as consumers by negative experiences. But that has nothing to do with art–that’s artists assuming their own value and importance and trying to cram it down other people’s throats to ensure that butts remain in paying seats.