Audiences across all cultural institutions are rapidly declining; in one of my prior posts I reflected on some data sets on old vs. new audiences, and how this decline threatens institutions' sustainability. One Artistic Director on the east coast saw and felt these effects and took a very creative approach to not just engage, but involve, two separate audiences with one event.
This interactive auction-house drama (Beneath the Gavel) was developed collaboratively between the New Britain Museum of Art and the Bated Breath Theater Company. The show successfully achieves that number one goal of any cultural institution: engaging the audience. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to bid against the high rollers at Sotheby's, or hike up the bid just to spite your neighbor at Christy's, you now can! Audience members are given fake money to engage with both each other and the actors in a high stakes bidding war. It is a different kind of theater, where you are not just watching a story, but you are a part of the story.
This kind of theater is nothing new - Tony and Tina's Wedding, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood are two shows that immediately come to mind which break the 4th wall and bring the audience into the story. Nevertheless, it is smart content for bridging two audiences, theater-lovers and art-lovers. By bringing this show to museums, the theater can capitalize on two potential audiences. It also helps spark a different sort of reputation to these two types of institutions; a reputation of being connected to its audiences in very tangible way. The theater's artistic director sites how when the show does an event at a museum they have a full house, which is no surprise. Modern audiences want to connect to culture in a real way - and by real, I mean they want to take a role as an active audience member, opposed to a passive one.
This is reflected in the kind of visitor experiences that do very well at museums - there is a difference between telling a story to visitors, and telling a story with visitors. The latter will lead to deeper engagement, deeper understanding, and a memorable experience to last beyond the end of a visit. In fact, this was the notion the founders of Antenna had, when first creating immersive, theatrical audio experiences at Burning Man and Alcatraz. That is the key to sustainability in cultural institutions, and I hope to see this show come my way to Chicago in future!
“I have been very concerned about the declining audiences in the theatre and in museum spaces, and I thought the cross-pollination might revive that decline in some small way,” Mara Lieberman, Bated Breath’s executive artistic director, told American Theatre. “It’s been really interesting because when we do an event at a museum, we really pack the house.”