Overheard Sunday night at the Hollywood Fringe: “We had about 12 (in the audience). Not bad!”
And everything being relative, it wasn’t bad. An even dozen was my count at Theatre Asylum earlier in the evening when I started my Fringe binge with Sam Shepard’s Cowboy Mouth – although three of us were from Engine28.com.
I didn’t take a survey, but I would be surprised if there was anyone in the audience who wasn’t either a theater writer or a theater artist, other than friends and family of the cast and director. Fifteen minutes into the performance, all I was thinking was, “Who are they doing this for?”
After all, this particular Shepard one-act – an absurdist rock-and-roll shouting match about a pair of crazed vagrants that features a Lobster Man dressed in a red tux and oven-mitt “claws” – would be a tough sell even if you weren’t choosing among 100-plus shows at the Fringe. And, more to the point, even if it were a good performance.
Not that I haven’t seen worse. Actors Justin O’Neill and Claire Kaplan (the two non-crustaceans) have some chops, but it takes extraordinary talent to make such a confrontational piece of theater connect with an audience. This production, the debut of the startup Hungry River Theatre Company, looks more like acting-school scene work – although if it were, I’m sure it would get an A.
Yet, while it is all too easy for a jaded theater critic to pooh-pooh some of the fringier shows at the Fringe, I have to remind myself the audience question cuts more ways than one.
To put it bluntly: I almost didn’t bother to write up this blog post, because I’m pretty sure it, too, will have an audience of about 12, if you don’t count colleagues, friends and family.
As a reporter for a major metro daily, The Arizona Republic, I have thousands of readers every week in the Sunday arts section. But as everyone knows, the newspaper business is on life support – it has been a terminal patient ever since Craigslist took away our top source of revenue, classified ads. So for the past decade, my industry has been scrambling to figure out how to remain relevant and solvent in the digital age. And out here on the Internet frontier, it’s a lot harder to find readers and connect with them.
That is what Engine28, a one-week experiment in “pop-up” journalism has been all about. We haven’t had time yet to decide what worked, what didn’t and what lessons we all will take from it. But the experience has certainly heightened my focus on the No. 1 question: Who am I doing this for?