Who do you want in your audience?

by Levi Weinhagen • Dec. 3

The vom |

“Never treat your audience as customers, always as partners.” – Jimmy Stewart

I’ve been thinking a lot about audience and the question of how much energy theater makers put into thinking about their audience. A few years ago I completely switched which audiences I was serving. At least, I thought I did.

For the first decade of my performing career I was doing shows specifically for adult audiences who were interested in satire, swearwords, and silly names. In other words, I was doing some version of sketch comedy. Some of the work I did was overt sketch comedy with shows made up of a series of scenes that mostly didn’t have anything to do with one another except for some running theme that purported to tie them all together but really had been tacked on fairly late in the creation of the show to give it the feel of cohesion. But even the bulk of the plays I did were very sketch in nature in that most of the scene work was done in service of making comedy. If a moment could be played for laughs it would be.

But a few years ago I tried writing and performing a show aimed at all-ages audiences, along with my now writing and producing partner Joshua English Scrimshaw. It ended up being the most fulfilling and rewarding writing and performing experience of my career up to that point so I kept going in that direction. Until I got to the point where I thought I was doing entirely different work as a writer and performer of live comedy.

“Your audience gives you everything you need. They tell you. There is no director who can direct you like an audience.” -Fanny Brice

Lately, however, I’ve come to realize that I’m still doing the same work. I’m making shows that are heavy with sketch elements. They just have a broader accessibility. The shows I’ve been a part of making over the last several years would and have worked for the same audiences I was performing for with my overtly adult shows. They just also work for kids.

The only thing that really changed is I put more thought into who my audience was and who I wanted my audience to be.

There’s this idea that artists should just make art and then hope that an audience who cares will find their way to it. I think it’s more and more considered outdated but there is still an icky feeling attached to making creative work with the audience in mind for a lot of artists. I know I still struggle with my desire to just make what I think is good and funny and my desire to sell every ticket for every seat in every theater I ever enter.

At the same time, there comes a point in the production of a show when most of the decisions being made are made with consideration for the audience. Lighting design, sound design, blocking, set design, these things are all done in service of the story being told but completely with the idea that everything be communicated clearly to the audience.

And the same can be said about an art show. There comes a point when consideration of the audience becomes this very present thing.

I suppose a discussion can be had about whether there’s a separation between the making of the art and the production of the experience surrounding the art. But for my work, and perhaps this is because I’m frequently producing as well as creating or maybe this is why I choose to do both, I want no separation between the writing and staging of the show and thinking about what the audience will like in the show as well as how their experience is impacted by all of the parts surrounding the show.

“Standing ovations have become far too commonplace. What we need are ovations where the audience members all punch and kick one another.” – George Carlin