Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Theater Audiences vs. Baseball Crowds

I saw the Giants play the Rockies at AT&T Park Monday night—my first Giants game ever, and my first live pro game in about 15 years. I never watch sports of any kind anymore, but, having been a spirited, if not gifted, athlete in my childhood, I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider. So, made even more self-conscious than I usually am, I started to pay less attention to the game itself and (surprise!) think about its performance implications instead. Baseball, I decided, is a brilliantly engineered, multilateral system of crowd engagement—one that perhaps theater could learn from.

The dominant feature of AT&T Park is its jumbo-sized scoreboard/television that towers over center field. Throughout games, it shows movie clips, commercials and live shots of the crowd (I just wrote “audience”; old habits die hard). On Monday, fans spent as much time watching the screen as they did the game—even where I was sitting, which was right below the screen. My neighbors had to turn completely around—away from the game, which was unfolding live before them—in order to watch it. But these physical constraints proved scant deterrent from the lures of digital glow.

The screen, coupled with so many other features of the stadium—its music, its food and drink vendors, its mobility-encouraging seating, its various crowd norms—creates a participatory system that, compared to watching theater, boasts considerable virtues. Watching a baseball game, you can choose to engage or disengage at any time from the official event. It doesn’t matter if you leave your seat to buy food and have stand in line so long to wait that you miss a whole inning. You can check your phone, or watch the giant television, or talk to your friends, or gulp down a beer, or join an impromptu cheer (or jeer). You can always tune back in at a crucial moment, or a boring one, to catch up on what you’ve missed. Nobody faults you for not being enraptured by the proceedings for the entire game, which would be a pretty difficult feat anyway.

In baseball, all of these “non-game” aspects are considered an important part of the experience—not so in theatre with an “r-e,” which by comparison is draconian in the way it treats its audiences. So I wonder if there could be successful theatre that looks a little more like a baseball game. You wouldn’t need a huge stadium—but you might need something that’s as easy to understand as a sport is. Maybe it could be structured like a pub crawl, with theater at each stop. Some SF theater companies are already inching in this direction—like the We Players, whose site-specific theater keeps audiences constantly on-the-go, while also giving them time to talk, take photos, and just space out and enjoy the scenery; or the Impact Theatre, whose motto is “Pizza. Beer. Plays.” (They’re housed in the basement of college pizza joint.) But there remains much untapped potential—especially in the digital way people like to “engage.” I’m excited to see how these and other adventurous companies continue to democratize the form.

The Giants won 3-1, if you’re wondering—not exactly a recovery from their previous 2-15, playoffs-disqualifying loss, but still an acceptable game for an outsider like me.

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