“When people try expressing their creativity, their self-esteem is often a reflection of the outcome of their work. Was it good? We ask ourselves.” – Benjamin Hardy.

In this blog post Benjamin Hardy writes about self-esteem when we create and put our creations out in the world. The article looks more specifically at not worrying about the outcomes but focus on ‘the doing’ to build flow. But when we do look for a  response to gauge our output, we believe an audience is required to be able to answer “was it good?”

The audience for a performance is a complex phenomenon and this blog post has been rewritten several times as I try to order my ideas and thoughts about the subject. It does not try to be a definitive article with all the answers but reflections and opinions to create thought, discussion and debate.

Who are the audience?

Anything we put out in the public sphere is subject to an audience, they become part of the feedback loop, our critics and admirers. Invited, they are a voyeur. They enter at a predetermined time and make a performance real, a non-existent contractual agreement to reveal artwork. They are an observer or a listener; they may be passive or active; they may be a targeted group or those who stumble upon the work. They have invested, at the very least, time, which makes them opinionated. They come without knowledge or understanding of the process, the grappling plethora of decisions that were made to explore and develop a work. They see and judge only what they experience with little empathy for the creator because they have invested. The audience is a fickle thing.

Numerous times I have heard performance artists say that they do not care about what the audience think, their process is the reason they create no matter how the resulting work is received. I dispute this, in so far, as the essence of any piece of art is communication, therefore it infers some thought given to those who will potentially see it. The audience is an integral part of creating and a consideration while doing so. To ignore them is ignorant, the artist does no disservice to the work of art by accepting their eventual presence. The art was intended to be seen from the onset was it not? Desiring approval from an audience is usually not the best way to make art but to eliminate them from the equation while creating would be naive.

Yet the artist should remain true to themselves and not bow to a whim of pleasing the audience. Following an unconventional path is a valid choice, stepping into the unknown, staying true to an artistic vision…  because sometimes the artist is ready and the audience is not. Take the case of Nijinsky and his choreographic work ‘Rite of Spring’ set to an original score by Stravinsky in 1913. It had a scandalous premiere in Paris, a huge step away from traditional ballet, with the dancers standing feet turned in and the music straining through dissonant chords. The audience were in an uproar of unmet expectations. As much as this performance was vehemently dismissed as rubbish at the time it is now one of the defining works of dance and music of the twentieth century.

What role does the audience play in creating?

An important one. What you want the audience to understand from a performance, frames how you create it. How the generated ideas are selected, rejected, developed and refined. The artist works with an intention that they want to convey. They formulate an impact they wish the audience to experience. These two parameters drive any work. With a clear defined intention of what the work is about and the message to be communicated, then the artist deliberates and experiments with the best methodology to deliver the content. Here, there are really no rules. What do you want to evoke in the viewer and how are you going to do it?

As a stakeholder in the performance the audience hold an incredible amount of power, they expect value for investment. Therefore one has to consider how to communicate the work to them, not to say you should make them happy. Shocking and disgusting an audience could provide them with an experience which enlightens and brings awareness to some intended issue. It does not have to be a pleasant experience, nor should it be, that is not what live theatre or performance is for. As much as a performance is a reflection of our humanity so are the audience a mirror to the work.

What do the audience do during a performance?

Even as a passive viewer or listener, the audience change the artwork when it is presented. It moves into a new domain from which it cannot return. The same dialogue, the same gestures, the same steps, the same songs as rehearsed but in front of viewers, ownership changes. It is given over to the audience, it belongs no more to the creator or performers. It stands trial.

Why do we need the audience after a performance?

At the duration the audience are a barometer of the performative experience. If they hated the work, it is not to say it is bad or invalid. Unfortunately, an artist’s career has little room for failure when launched to the public, a perceived ‘bad work’ can in fact be an important development step in the artist’s continuum. Although, ‘being as good as your last work’ does hold some truth in performance art with a reliance on funding and needing people to return to fill seats. Despite all this, there are many secrets that the audience can divulge. Insights, abstract connections, emotive reactions, realisations, praise and criticism. This is the feedback that the artist needs to hear and it can be hard, and crippling to the self-esteem. Nonetheless it is feedback and it is the artist’s decision what to do the with the feedback. Feedback is vital to the artist. This needs to be explicitly taught early on to help deal with and decipher criticism that is negative, into opportunities to learn and grow.

The performance does not need to be the end of the creative process, development can (and should) occur after presentation to an audience, the work changes and begins to live from being viewed, experienced. This provides wisdom and understanding, a different perspective that those involved may not have been able to grasp till that point. It would be foolish not to notice those details and work with them, obliterate them or enhance them. It may be for this work or for future creations.

The audience will never in its entirety agree, you can never satisfy everyone.. That’s life. It is up to the artist to negotiate and form resilience, stay true to vision and keep on creating.

Featured image from Nela

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