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Why Hurling Rotten Fruit Is Good for Theater

April 4, 2010

When audiences threw rotten vegetables at actors in the old days, it generally meant they weren’t having a good time. But the San Francisco-based theater company PianoFight has been resurrecting that Shakespearean tradition in the hopes of inducing the opposite effect.

At PianoFight’s inaugural “Throw Rotten Veggies at the Actors” night last October, which the company will repeat in the coming weeks, the audience, at the end of the production, gleefully hurled produce at the cast. Meanwhile, the actors, slipping about in a sea of squashed tomatoes, did their best to shield themselves from the blows.

Arts organizations are always searching for new ways to engage audiences as overall attendance continues to decline. According to a recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly 35 percent of American adults attended an art museum or an arts performance in 2008, compared with about 40 percent in 2002.

These companies are using social media like Facebook and Twitter, alongside more traditional techniques like talks, tours and audience surveys, to keep the public informed of their activities and deepen their customer relationships.

While such methods can help arts organizations interact with the public, they seem dull compared with ideas like inviting the audience to sing with the professionals in musicals, view their own drawings on museum walls, or stand in for Keanu Reeves (as they do in the interactive stage show “Point Break Live”).

In a world overrun with entertainment options, these activities have the potential to foster people’s attachment to the arts. But even the more creative tactics come with challenges — there’s a fine line between making a visitor feel invested in a work of art and sacrificing artistic standards in the pursuit of interactivity.

Local groups are certainly using their imaginations to find ways to captivate the public. Besides its “Throw Rotten Veggies” night, PianoFight is asking ticket buyers, rather than theater experts, to judge the work of the 56 competing playwrights in the contest “ShortLived,” which continues through June 26 at the Off-Market Theater. The winner will get the chance to write a full-length play to be produced by PianoFight for a one-month run in San Francisco and Los Angeles. (The same competition is taking place in Los Angeles at the Asylum Lab.)

The act of judging plays encourages strangers to interact with one another. “We bring up the house lights in between plays, and people ask each other about scoring,” said Rob Ready, the artistic director of PianoFight.

Branching out from its usual classical music repertory, the Mill Valley Philharmonic is hosting a sing-along event on April 10 in which the crowd can perform songs like “Hey Jude” and “Sweet Home Alabama” backed by orchestral musicians.

The Philharmonic hopes the interactivity will build audiences. “Once people get to know us, they become incredibly loyal concertgoers,” said Laurie Cohen, its music director. “Audiences love to feel they are part of our community.”

When the Oakland Museum of California reopens on May 1, it will include a special exhibition in which visitors can create a computerized self-portrait and see their artwork projected on the wall alongside paintings by professional artists. Meanwhile, the monthly Non-Stop Bhangra event at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco combines performances by the Dholrythms dance company with opportunities for audience members to try out Bhangra steps.

The novelty value of these events can bring in audiences. A recent “Sing-Along Mikado” played to capacity crowds, according to Barbara Heroux, the artistic director of the Lamplighters Music Theater, a company that specializes in producing Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.

Some of these heightened interactions are more inspiring than others. The San Francisco Symphony offered a free workshop last summer based on the popular iPhone application Ocarina, which turns the phone into a digital flute. The class took place after a performance of music from the “Final Fantasy” video game series, which provided the perfect way to hook in a young audience. About 60 people played in the “Ocarina orchestra” that night, and 140 people downloaded sheet music from the symphony’s social networking Web site, according to symphony officials.

Less germane, however, was an attempt by the a cappella vocal ensemble Chanticleer to engage audiences at a youth choral festival concert two weeks ago. In the middle of the show, the audience was instructed to take photographs of the student choir using their cellphones and e-mail the snapshots to friends and relatives. Though a sweet idea, it interrupted the flow of the concert and felt gimmicky.

Balancing audience involvement with artistic concerns is undeniably challenging. Chanticleer’s cellphone tactic may have been superficial, but it didn’t undermine the perfection of the singing. And that is what keeps audiences coming back.

Conversely, PianoFight’s all-out approach, though fun, threatens to sacrifice quality at the expense of interactivity. And the barriers to entry for “ShortLived” are exceedingly low: Anyone can submit a play. Because the audience is responsible for judging, authors frequently bring their fans. The winning play may therefore be as much the result of a popularity contest as it is a reflection of artistic merit.

Arts organizations should be careful not to let these interactive elements debase the quality of their work. Or it won’t be long before audiences start hurling rotten veggies on a regular basis.



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