Scarcity culture is the persistent systemic feeling that there’s not enough of something to go around. In theatre, that usually means one of two things. In the first place, usually from the mouths of artists: there isn’t enough audience for their work. In the second place, usually from the mouths of people who consume art: there isn’t enough good art being made.
The juxtaposition of these two thoughts ought to suggest the tension teased out between them. Namely, there is a lack of connection, of relationship, between artists and their audience. Slightly less obvious is the reality that more giving from both the artist and the audience solves this problem.
From this point, I am going to address each camp in detail. If you’re an artist, I’m going to talk to you, and then separately, if you are part of the “audience,” I’ll talk to you. And just so we’re clear, the only difference is a shift in your perspective, so you’ll all find yourselves addressed all the way through this. Oh, and also, I’m talking to myself always.
You made a thing, you think it’s brilliant. Or at least, you think it might be brilliant, and you want to show people. The noble thing is that you want to show them something about themselves, and the world. That you have something to say that they can learn from. That your perspective is unique. The ignoble thing is that you want them to love you. You want their approval. You want their money so you can eat and pay rent. You think they are idiots for not coming to your show. You think they’re inconsiderate, and dumb for not appreciating it, even when they do come. You resent other artists for making work because you think they are taking your audience. Some artists move past these feelings of resentment towards the sort of attitude I’ll talk about a bit later on. I applaud those people and appreciate the work they’ve done.
For the rest of us, the thing is, even though you and your work may merit an audience, you’re not entitled to one. No one is entitled to one. Or to anything, really. This may seem like a slippery slope I’m walking along. If no one is entitled to anything, what happens to human rights? It’s your right to speak freely, but it’s not your right to do nothing but make art, or to have people appreciate you for it. People have a right to shelter and food and clean water in our society, and society expects to support people in attaining those things, but that is not the same thing as making art. Making art is a privilege.
The thing you forget:
You are making art because you love making art. You aren’t making art for fame or fortune, or because you have something to say. If you begin and end in the place where you love the making of art, it’s possible to conceive of the process of building your audience community as part of making art. Making sure you are able to eat is also integral to the process; eating lunch is part of your practice. You forget that every audience member who goes to another artist’s show but not yours is 80% of the way to them being part of your process too. Getting people off the couch is the hard part, directing them towards your work is much easier when they’re already looking for art.
It’s fun to make art, to bring people together, to bring more people to the theatre, to show them something about themselves they didn’t know. You give that away. Loving the whole process will actually make the art better, because you will care more about the details of the relationship you are building. Actively engage in building your audience as part of the art making process. Go be a part of the audience at other people’s work. Talk to them and their audience about it. Make your art into an event that has a complete experience worked into it; engage the community about the issues your work deals with, invite speakers and stakeholders, and generally enrich the total package of the art event. Make art that people need to see. Give that to your community. People will come if it is relevant to their lives.
For the audience:
As a description of how much time and energy has gone into the production of the work you are engaging with, the price you paid for admittance is essentially nil. If you arrive looking to get something from the experience that is worth your money, then you aren’t paying attention to the art.
You feel like there’s so much theatre out there, and so much of it is bad, (not to mention all the art you could engage with that isn’t theatre) you want to be guaranteed a good show. You don’t want to waste your time. You feel like the artist is trying to trick you into giving them money. You want to be entertained. You feel like you can’t possibly see all of it.
The thing you forget:
You have a job to do at the theatre as well. You aren’t a passive consumer of entertainment. Your job is to give your energy to the production, to actively observe and participate in the theatre. If you arrive at the theatre with an attitude of love for the art, and actively engage your interest throughout your time there, the money that you happen to spend matters much less. The more engaged you are with the process of making art that is unfolding in front of you, the more interested you’ll be. That way, even if the finished product isn’t life changing, or entertaining in the slightest – even if you didn’t understand what was going on at all – you did your job.
To take this one step further: when you actively engage with something, you start to care about it. That’s scary. But it seems like a step towards actually making the world better. This is the part where your presence becomes integral to the art-making process. When you can’t see everything (in reality, you can’t), you prioritize the art you want to support. What I’m saying is that you already do part of this, and with a shift in thinking you will enjoy it more, because you’ll stop thinking you’re entitled to the gratitude of artists when you show up. You may get it, but you aren’t entitled to it, and you will get to stop resenting the artist who doesn’t give you gratitude. You aren’t there to get gratitude or enlightenment or entertainment, you’re there to give part of yourself to the artistic process. To your community.
In consumer culture there is this idea that both parties in a transaction think they are getting more than they give. The retailer thinks your money is worth more than the thing you are buying, and you think that the thing is more important than the money.
I wonder what sort of reality we would build if we flipped this attitude on its head. If when I give my money to a business (and art is a business in our culture, no mistake), I see myself as giving more than I was getting. As a member of the audience, I give my time, my financial support, my attention, my creative imagination, to a performer and a production for a period of time. I am giving them all of me for that space of time. I perceive them to be the beneficiary of this attention and money, and (this is the most important part) I am grateful for the opportunity to give it to them. I don’t resent the artist for doing something other than I expected, because it is fundamentally not about the experience I am getting, but the experience of giving. When I make art, I give all of myself to it, to the audience, my attention, my creative imagination, my trust. I don’t resent the audience for not coming, or not paying attention; instead I am grateful for the opportunity to give them something. I am privileged to create the moments that bring us together.
Maybe this sounds hokey to you. But this perception of scarcity is a direct result of egotistical self-absorption: the gimme attitude of children. I believe we make art and observe art because we think we have something to give to the people on the other side of the curtain, not because we think we can get something from them.
Now, to bring this back to the critical project: criticism is also an act of generosity. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with art and give my perceptions of that engagement back to the artist and the audience to help them move into the future of the work together. I give as much attention and engagement as I can to each piece that I participate in. I try to see it on its own terms, and from a range of perspectives. I am aim to be the best audience member that I can be, which I believe includes explaining my thoughts and feelings about a piece to form part of the ongoing dialogue about it. I am engaged in the process of building an audience for this artistic work as well, as a part of the work.
The thing I forget: you tell me.