“I’ve been warned that I’ve only seen the most progressive audience when it comes to Hilton Head Island–the kind of audience that will buy tickets for a whole weekend of staged readings in the middle of a tropical storm.”

by Katie Rasor

It was a wiltingly humid South Carolina morning  last August as I waited to give one of my collaborators a ride to rehearsal during the whirlwind weekend of staged readings that is the annual Hilton Head Island New Play Festival. “Yeah, I’m in New York” he said into a cell phone, giving me a friendly nod as he came out of the house. I was looking around the car for alligators and poisonous snakes that, according to the local news, Hurricane Irene had driven out of the marshes and into local neighborhoods, and I thought he might be confused. Didn’t he see the palm trees? Hadn’t he been privy to our days of panicked debate, pouring over weather maps and questioning whether Irene would force us to cancel the very festival we were off to rehearse? Do his producers in New York habitually crawl around under cars looking for copperheads?

Then I remembered: that pervasive notion that if it isn’t happening in New York, Chicago, or LA, it’s not worth doing. I’m not saying that my collaborator felt that way; I’m saying that enough people DO feel that way that it was easier to lie than to argue the artistic merits of spending a weekend creating theater in the South.

The blame for this does not lay entirely on any one group of people. Anyone who has tried to stage Angels in America outside a major city knows that all too often, less urban audiences tend to have a lower tolerance for strong language, controversial issues, and the avant garde. So it is understandable that those trying to create cutting-edge work tend to write for the most flexible, open-minded audiences to the exclusion of all others. Yet, after years of work created without the regional audiences in mind, its unsurprising that some audiences have begun to perceive the work coming out of New York as hostile, or at best, indifferent to them. They then complain about anything outside their comfort zone, in turn only driving playwrights further from them, and the cycle continues.

This is something we’re trying to combat at the Hilton Head Island New Play Festival. We speculate (however naively) that part of the reason the American South as a whole doesn’t seem to value the arts is that it does not have enough opportunity to actually experience them. We think that perhaps there are people out there that would find theater interesting—indeed revolutionary—if they had the option to see something besides Cats or whatever Broadway three-hander won the Tony four years ago. Maybe there are people who love Cats that would also enjoy something new. I can’t speak for the entire South, but I can say that for the audience of South Carolina Repertory Company, this is absolutely true.
When Nick Newell came to me with the idea of doing a New Play Festival in the South Carolina Lowcountry, he focused on one particular selling point: the audience. SCRC’s audience is smart, unpretentious, quick to laugh and even quicker to tell you what they think. In short, they are a director of new play development’s dream. At our inaugural festival in 2010, they proved this beyond any of our expectations. They laughed through Stacia St. Owen’s edgy exploration of race, gender, and war in Catholic Girl Gun Club, they called for a full production of Bryce Wissel’s dark non-linear comedy Ephemera, which is set in space and features a love-struck robot and Creationist ape-man, and gasped and rolled with laughter as James Rasheed’s catty couples go for the jugular in The Baristas. So in 2011, we decided to drive right in again, trusting the audience to give us feedback that they alone could provide.

The weekend kicked off with O Walter, My Walter by Brooklyn-based playwright Elena Zucker. This absurdist piece based loosely on the 2007 scandal at Walter Reed veterans’ hospital and exploring the treatment of veterans, had already won NYU’s Goldberg Prize and been very well received at a concert reading. Elena was steadily making rewrites when the script fell into my hands. What on earth could we offer her in South Carolina that she wasn’t already getting in New York? An audience full of veterans. South Carolina is home to a large population of former soldiers, and who better to weigh in on this issue than the veterans themselves and their families? That being said, it was a bit of a gamble. The play does not shy away from blood-chilling displays of cruelty and corruption, it explores the concept of sexuality as a weapon, and it features dazzling expressionistic sequences. I was sure that this would be about 80% of the audience’s first experience with this style of theater. Impressively, the audience rose to the challenge and during the talkback was eager to focus, not on what they didn’t understand, but what they did: the treatment of veterans. Their feedback was mind-blowing. Many there had actually spent time at Walter Reed and felt that Elena’s stylistic choice to name all the male characters Walter captured the anonymity soldiers experience lying in seemingly endless rows in a hospital ward, as well as the namelessness of being just another piece of bureaucratic paperwork. A retired military surgeon even piped in with a thorough diagnosis of a roadside bomb-specific head injury based on a character’s abstract monologue. The talkback ended with a woman’s loudly applauded suggestion that this piece be presented at a veteran’s hospital.

The weekend closed on Sunday with Los Angeles playwright Steve Harper’s Urban Rabbit Chronicles, a dark foray into magical realism set in Manhattan. It is a sophisticated piece and he is a particularly experienced and accomplished playwright. I would venture to guess that it was most audience members’ first exposure to this kind of drama. They were game. They rolled with unsettling, strange plot twists and actually “oohed” with horrified delight at a sinister sex scene right before intermission that I, bracing myself in the lighting booth, was sure would offend them. Despite all my big talk, I had underestimated them.

Saturday night posed a very different kind of challenge. We featured Durham-based playwright Marshall Botvinick’s Beckett in Jackson –the story of a wealthy Jackson, Mississippi couple who decide to write a play based on the work of Samuel Beckett (despite never having read his plays). This piece fascinated me from the moment it popped up on my computer screen because it performs a tightrope act between esoteric Samuel Beckett jokes and allusions, and comedy based on the foibles, quirks, and customs of the American South. Marshall had gotten feedback that this dichotomy could not possibly work onstage: Those that got the Beckett jokes would be put off by the characters’ broad comedy, and the people who enjoyed the Southern humor would be alienated by the Beckett jokes, which they surely would not follow. Personally, I caught the Beckett allusions and found the characters in the piece to be not only hilarious, but quite accurate. I suspected that the criticism Marshall received says more about the critic than the play. The critic was so focused on what he believed the audience wouldn’t know, he failed to recognize where he himself was inexperienced: in the culture and customs of people in what is so often written off as “the Bible belt.” In any case, I wanted to test that theory on the SCRC audience, who would definitely know the South, if not Beckett. After a laughter-filled reading, the audience (by a show of hands) admitted that they had little experience with the works of Samuel Beckett.

This is another thing I love about regional audiences: they feel no need to lie. Their reactions are honest and instinctual. They have nothing to prove. They don’t pretend to like something for fear of seeming unsophisticated.

Marshall could not have gotten this kind of feedback in New York or Boston (where I live and work most of the year); either the audience would already know Beckett, making it impossible to test whether or not the Beckett jokes are layered enough not to alienate those who don’t get them, or they’d lie about it. Similarly, Steve had already gotten feedback in private readings in L.A. Here was a fresh public audience ready to weigh in—one with no concept of what is trendy or “in” right now. In the same way, Elena may be able to get exceptional stylistic feedback on O Walter in New York, but chances are, to hear from a large sampling of the actual people she’s writing about, she’ll have to leave the island and seek responses outside the places where “important theater” is happening. And so she did. Should O Walter ever make its way back down to Hilton Head Island, I suspect that it will be greeted with open minds and arms, because the audience will now feel ownership in it. I like to imagine (again, maybe naively) that if we as theater artists reach out to regional audiences and invite them into the conversation at the ground level of a piece’s development, they will begin to see theater not as a coastal invasion, but as an exploration and discussion of ideas in which they too can take part.

It will not always be easy. SCRC’s Associate Producer Blake White definitely fielded some negative feedback after the festival—the most forceful of which expressed the fear that the regular season would become unrecognizable to patrons. Our audience was also aided by skillful and careful consideration by three directors very familiar with this particular crowd: Jim Stark, Chip Egan, and Nick Newell—all of whom tailored the style of the readings to the needs of the audience as well as the demands of the text. The collective talent of the cast and the quality of our playwrights’ work certainly didn’t hurt matters either. That being said, the audience showed up—sold the place out actually—ready for whatever came their way.

I’ve been warned that I’ve only seen the most progressive audience when it comes to Hilton Head Island–the kind of audience that will buy tickets for a whole weekend of staged readings in the middle of a tropical storm. It remains to be seen whether this weekend’s worth of enthusiasm translates to solid ticket sales for a full production. I have just returned to South Carolina, where we’re staging the first full production of The Baristas, the first draft of which was so well-received at the festival in 2010. It has gotten edgier in subsequent drafts, and its three-week run will need a bigger turnout to sell out than a three-day festival does. Rehearsals begin January 5. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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