Giving the Play-by-Play

March 2, 2010

By Matt Ocks, >treatment Manager of Institutional Giving

At the Arden we’re having conversations about how best to engage you – the audience – in new work.  (You may not know it, but you are experiencing one of our methods right now, just by reading this blog entry.  To paraphrase Dirty Harry – You’ve got to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel engaged?  Well do ya?)  Anyway…

I’m a lifelong theatre buff, thanks in large part to my mother’s perhaps odd decision to take me to Into the Woods on Broadway when I was 5 (Turns out the whole thing is about sex and death.  Who’d a thunk it?).  Having now worked in development and stage management, not to mention as a writer, actor, assistant director, house manager, curtain speech giver, coffee fetcher, and teaching artist — I can honestly say that a lot of the things that first dazzled me about the theatre – like the giant head and the fake white cow – have now been demystified.

And as I listen to my colleagues debate ways to make the theatrical process more transparent, I tend to get anxious.  Isn’t part of the joy of being an audience member not knowing how we did it?  Are we depriving people of the mystery and intrigue of theatre by revealing too many of our secrets?

Arden Children’s Theatre is a great example. As many of you know, each show ends with a Q and A session where kids get to ask the actors how they did things in the show.  It’s inspiring to see so many kids with their hands raised.  But I think about when I was a kid.  I would come home after seeing a play and spend hours trying to figure out how they had achieved various effects.  I had construction paper and crayons and action figures and models.  Going to plays sparked my imagination.  If I had seen through the smoke and mirrors then, I might not be such a theatre guy now.

Or maybe I was just weird as a kid.

Strike that.

I was weird.

And the truth – as Ed Sobel pointed out to me not too long ago – is that a more informed audience is a more passionate audience.  To illustrate his point, Ed spoke about art museums.  A person gets more out of the experience of going to an exhibit if he/she took an art history course in college or a drawing course when they were a kid.

Having given this some serious thought, I would make the same point in another way.  If you’re watching a baseball game, and you’ve never played baseball or you have no idea about the rules of the game, it’s probably going to be a pretty boring experience.  But if you’re an informed fan – if you can tell the difference between a knuckle ball and a curve ball, a fast ball and a slider – you’re gonna find even the most uneventful pitchers’ duel more interesting.

The great thing about baseball is everybody’s an expert.  Those of us who watch the game know all about Chase Utley’s batting stance, Placido Polanco’s throwing arm (let’s hope he’s still got it!), and Jimmy Rollins’ stealing ability.  When the Phillies make a trade that many of us disagree with (Ahem.  Cliff Lee), we can talk about why this was a mistake intelligently.  Because we are informed.

Which brings me to my next point.  You see, dear readers, I, Matt Ocks, have finally figured out the best way to keep you, me, all of us engaged by the theatre:


Okay.  Not actual sportscasters.  But people who serve the same role in our field that Cris Collinsworth and Mary Carillo serve in the Olympics.  They keep us informed about how athletes prepare for each event, what they are going to be judged on, and – later  – how well they did.  If it wasn’t for this kind of coverage, I’m not sure how much I would have gotten out of curling the other night.

And I think maybe it does need to work the same way in theatre.  To appreciate – even to criticize – acting, for instance, you should know about how much work goes into crafting a performance; you should know what an objective is, what specificity does, etc.  The same goes for writing, designing and directing.  If you guys all knew as much about the process as we do, you’d be better judges not only of whether or not you like a play, but why you like or don’t like it.  In the same way that you can only get excited about Roy Halladay joiing the team if you understand the art of pitching and what it means for the Phillies to have him.  And how incredible it would have been to have him and Cliff Lee and…oh, never mind.

One final point about sportscasters:  I purposely chose Cris and Mary as my examples over, say, Al Michaels and Bob Costas, because they are not only sportscasters but people who played professional sports.  I don’t think that our “theatrecasters” can only be dramaturgs and arts journalists – people whose job it is to communicate what we do to the public.  I think actors, writers, directors and designers should also play a part in analyzing the work of their peers, giving the “play by play” so to speak.  After all, no one else knows better what it’s like to put everything on the line, on stage, in front of a dark room full of strangers.  No one else is better equipped to judge failure, success and everything in between.

At least in my opinion.  Others may (and probably do) disagree.  I also wonder – if you do agree with me – if you have any thoughts on how active and former theatre artists could play a larger role in “covering” theatre the way Scott Hamilton covers figure skating.

I welcome any response you may have to this in the comments section.

And that includes commiserating over the loss of Cliff Lee.  Did Ruben Amaro watch the world series?!!


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