The rise of the active audience 

The Searchers

A few months ago, I met with the founders of Little City Musical Theatre Company. We talked about what they wanted to do (stage small, quality musicals), how they'd do it (any way they could), and where they'd do it.

They couldn't answer to that last one. It's a concern of many: Creativity is getting squeezed among performing artists because there aren't enough venues to go around. Little City, fortunately, went on to stage a debut production, Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World, at South of Broadway Theatre in North Chuck. It was an adequate space but only temporary.

I could see from their faces that this bright, talented, and clearly energized bunch of actors and singers was worried about the venue problem. They were concerned about being homeless, about being unable to market themselves, about being unable to cultivate an audience, because, you know, the audience wouldn't know where to find them for lack of a permanent venue.

It's a reasonable concern. Having a theater is probably better than not. But I wonder if a group like Little City might have an advantage. I wonder if being smaller, nimbler, more mobile, and more media-savvy might be just the traits needed to survive, and perhaps thrive, in the 21st century, as we witness the rise of what arts administrators are calling the "active audience."

Fifty years ago, you went to the theater, sat down in the dark, watched a play, clapped, and went home. You didn't interact. You didn't engage. You were passive. And that was fine. Now, more than two decades into the digital era, active participation is the paradigm of the age. To quietly receive a performance, as if it were a church sermon, seems almost antiquated.

That's because we are otherwise engaged in culture-making more than ever before, privately (knitting circles, book groups, community choirs) and publicly (YouTube, Wordpress, Make Magazine). Viral video, instant communications, and social networking have fueled this surge. The orthodoxy of DIY marginalized in the 1980s is now the center of the 21st century.

Culture used to be controlled by its producers — in particular, mass media culture like broadcast television, Hollywood movies, daily newspapers — but increasingly it's controlled by consumers. New technologies promulgated a shift in power, and with that shift has come a change of behavior: Instead of waiting for Katie Couric to read the news, we're now getting it for ourselves.

In other words, we are searching.

The Associated Press reported last week that nearly half of all internet users now prefer search engines, like Google, to using directories or regular websites, according to a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. They are skipping the leisurely pace of browsing that was commonplace a few years ago, because there's more and more information being added to the internet.

People are "putting themselves in the driver's seat."

If, as posited by Nicholas Carr in an influential article in The Atlantic Monthly, search engines like Google are affecting the neurological structures of our brains, changing the way we think, how we organize information, and what we see in the world, then it follows that this new search mentality could become the dominant mode of perspective and behavior in the 21st century. The AP report also noted that this trend is especially prevalent among young, educated, well-heeled users with professional degrees.

That is, just the kind of people you want going to your play.

The Little City Musical Theatre Company may not have a home, but perhaps, in light of this new Googlized neurology (whether that's a good thing or bad), a venue of its own might not be as imperative as we think for a young, ambitious theater troupe.

Maybe, if Little City's founders can take advantage of our growing urge to seek out quality, such as some savvy marketing on Facebook, an active audience will find them.


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