Arts Groups Break Down Fourth Wall

By Carter, Alice T. | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 11, 2008 | Go to article overview

Arts Groups Break Down Fourth Wall

Carter, Alice T., Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Among the posters hanging on Dance Alloy's lobby walls is one that says "The audience is part of the process."

It's an idea that Dance Alloy's executive director Beth Corning and other area arts providers increasingly take seriously.

According Lynne Conner, principal investigator for The Heinz Endowments' ongoing Arts Experience Initiative, arts audience members want opportunities to co-author the meaning of artwork.

Be it dance, visual art, theater or music, contemporary audiences want to break down the fourth wall that separates artists and audiences.

Some want more hands-on or direct contact with art and artists. Others are looking for opportunities to exchange ideas and responses about the meaning of what they saw. And many want to talk more, and more meaningfully, about what they saw.

"Right now, artists and professionals are the beginning and end of the discussion. The audience is not part of the equation," explains Conner. "People want to be part of the experience."

That's what motivates Ian Lipsky, an environmental engineer who lives in Highland Park, to attend performances of music, dance or theater.

"It's the combination of feeling connected to the institution, because I either know somebody in the company or the more-remote connection I feel of the vitality of being there in a room with other people consuming the same piece of art," Lipsky says.

Modern technology makes it possible to view an astounding variety of paintings, concerts, operas, the latest ballets or dramas from the comfort and privacy of our couch, Lipsky says.

"We can experience outstanding works of art in our homes or on our laptop computers," he says "We are able to consume art more -- rewind, stop, hear better, see better and with nobody coughing or annoying us. But, all of us have experience that when doing that, it is not as fulfilling for us."

To provide the connections that arts patrons such as Lipsky are looking for, area arts organizations have created programs and projects on their own.

Some are as simple as the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's 15-year- old audience survey that encourages patrons to vote on musicals for the coming season.

Each year, the top audience choices form the majority of titles included in the six-play season. Sometimes it's not possible to get the production rights to all five or six of the top picks. But Van Kaplan, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's executive producer, managed to include five top choices in the 2006 season and four in the 2007 season.

He also takes it seriously when shows rank really low on the survey.

Even though Kaplan would love to produce them, musicals such as "Chess" and "Meet Me In St. Louis" haven't made it on the season roster because they fell at the bottom of the ranking, he says.

It's not just a marketing ploy. "We really do take it seriously," Kaplan says. "We also want to involve (audiences). There is a loyalty we feel for our patrons. We feel they are part of the process."

For the past two years, the small theater company Bricolage has put its audiences in charge of the play-selection process.

During a six-month period, the company offers a half-dozen staged readings, then invites attendees to vote for the show that will receive a full production.

"We are trying to engage the audience in a new way and stimulate a higher sense of involvement," says Bricolage's artistic director Jeffrey Carpenter. The audience's choices are often surprising, Carpenter adds. "In the first two years, the audience has not chosen the easiest material, or the most popular."

In 2006, audiences passed over the two readings he thought would be winners and chose "Key to the Field," a show that demanded more from both producers and audience.

The reading program has been extremely popular. Readings often play to standing-room audiences of 120 or more and become more theatrical events, Carpenter says. …

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