Editor's Note: This article first appeared in MinnesotaPlaylist in the December 2008 issue, Know your audience.
Deep breath in. Hold it. Exhale. Shake your hands a bit, get the blood flowing again. Focus. Don’t let the latecomers throw you, just stay focused. One last time through my first few lines in my head. That feeling is back. Like I swallowed a sack full of bees. I have about two minutes until my cue and the anxiety is already creeping in. Can’t seem to shake it. Move into position. I have been on the stage numerous times and I’m pissed that my nerves still get the better of me occasionally. I hear my cue:
“Next up on the agenda, we have Jeff Redman. He is here tonight to talk about the Workhouse Theatre Company and their next play.” I step onstage and instinct takes over.
I used to get stage fright. Bad. At some time in my career I learned about giving myself over to the experience and my anxiety faded. I don’t get stage fright anymore... when I’m acting. The toughest crowd I face these days is the twenty or so diehard neighborhood residents who attend the monthly Victory Neighborhood Association, or ViNA for short, community meetings. I am usually sandwiched somewhere between the neighborhood crime activity report and an announcement about an upcoming church basement social. There’s nothing more intimidating than a crowd who has just been told that the city is going to close a major through street to conduct traffic pattern tests. They’ve heard it all over the years: campaign promises to revitalize the neighborhood, guarantees to redevelop vacant lots, and more well intentioned yet underfunded initiatives than you can shake a stick at.
As a northside resident I stood before the ViNA board and most likely the same twenty or so diehard residents back in 2003 with the idea that I could use my skills to help transform my neighborhood. It had been a while since I had been active in the theater scene (kids, graduate school, need for a steady income), and I was eager to get back into it.
North Minneapolis is a big place
The bastard child of the Near North Community and the Camden Community, the term “north Minneapolis” was made popular by newspaper reporters as a shortcut when reporting about crime. Officially, north Minneapolis is divided into two distinct communities, but to the public it is just north Minneapolis. For the media, it serves a purpose and it has worked. What do you think of when you think of north Minneapolis?
Northside, as we residents affectionately call it, was sacrificed in the name of progress by the same interstate that leveled the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul during the 1960s. Interstate 94, while providing rapid transit through the Twin Cities, essentially cut north Minneapolis off from the rest of the city, at the same time destroying busy department stores, independent banks, schools and a thriving community. You can still see the remnants if you travel on Lyndale Avenue north of the Dowling exit.
There is the Camden Park State Bank Building on Lyndale and 44th, classic stone work façade meant to symbolize the infallibility of the bank now home to a coffee shop and hair braiding salon. The Machine Specialties building lies just up the road, a soaring two-story stone building with a rounded turret front that has been in the same family for generations. Coveted by Northside artists and community activists, it can be yours for a cool $2 million and some tuck pointing. A mini strip mall is also now home to the former Camden Theater marquee, which can still be seen from 94 if you are heading into downtown. There are stately Victorian, Tudor, and Craftsman homes that used to be served by streetcars.
I am always thrilled when a first time audience member who isn’t a Northsider comes to a show and says, “I didn’t even know Minneapolis was this big,” and I can’t help but smile when they follow that up with, “Am I going to be okay walking back to my car after the show?”
Know your audience
Last season Workhouse Theatre Company seated just under a thousand audience members for all of our productions and events. It would be hyperbolic to say that we knew every single audience member; we don’t even have that many Facebook friends and, besides, does anyone really ever know anyone? How about we say that we have a good relationship with our audience or we go way back or if the show wasn’t the best, we’re still on speaking terms. Whatever term we use, we know that our most valuable asset to what we are doing up here is our audience base.
What does it mean to know your audience anyway? We know that 60 percent comes from the neighborhood, our average audience age is 42.6 years old, and that 59 percent is female. A majority of our audience would prefer comedies over tragedies, but they will take a risk with us once in a while. What more do we need to know?
We need to know Ellen and her friend Shirley, two octogenarians who have seen almost every show we have done. (They didn’t come to the last show, because Ellen’s knees have been bothering her.) They sit in the front row. They sat through the brutality of Oleanna, the irreverent humor of The Underpants, and the Ivey Award-winning ’night, Mother. Ellen gave us an old vaudeville gas footlight to display in our lobby and when her house caught fire, we made sure she knew we were thinking about her. After our production of A Company of Wayward Saints, Ellen commented that if she were twenty years younger she would be right up there on stage with us.
We need to know Carissa, who works down the street at the Camden Pet Hospital—who seems surprised that I call her by name when I hand her a program. Or Jeff, who is active in his neighborhood association, and who has appeared on our stage a handful of times, organizes the Earth Day Shingle Creek cleanup every year, and is a stand-up guy. There’s Katie, who took an acting class from us a few years ago and became a loyal fan. Rich, with whom I discuss Polish royalty. Mary Jeanne whose husband passed away recently. Gary sticks around for every talkback and can usually relate the show to a dream he had. Janet runs the music school, and Connie makes stained glass.
Here is what else I know
Greet your audience both before and after but don’t ask them if they liked the show. Ask them how they are doing. Learn something new about them before they leave. Ask them how their experience makes them feel about their neighborhood. With a space as intimate as ours it is nearly impossible to remain anonymous or pretend you don’t see someone in the lobby. At our space, I would have to hide under a table. I used to think it a curse, but at the very least it forces us to interact.
Stay active in the community where your audience comes from. Attend the neighborhood ice cream socials and set up a booth. Visit the neighborhood businesses and tip more than is expected. Make sure the other neighborhood arts organizations get personal invites to your events and that you attend theirs. Become the headline act at festivals and in the community. Be not just a spokesperson for your theater, but for the theater’s chosen community. Never forget the community that is pulling for you because you are pulling for them.
Give your audience ownership if the art form. Remove the artificial trappings of theater that allows the audience to remain distant and detached. Move the seats to the edge of the stage. Bring the actors out into the lobby immediately to socialize. Engage the audience in conversations that get to the heart of the piece and go beyond the superficial. Take them backstage; provide them with workshops and talk backs. Develop a community advisory board so that the residents (and in Camden there are over 30,000 of them) can have a voice in the theater and the theater can have a voice in the community.
I’ll be back at ViNA a month before our next show. I’ll speak for about five minutes and answer a few questions. But I’ll stay for the whole meeting and find out who won the holiday lights house-decorating contest this year, give them a free pass to the show, and yes, see how Ellen is doing. She’ll love the next show. It has lemmings. ❦