In Praise of the Regional Audience

“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, Read more