Allie's Questionnaire

Anne Bogart's picture

Allie Lalonde, SITI Company’s wizard of communications and development, is also simultaneously writing her final thesis paper in completion of the MFA requirements for Columbia University’s Theater Management and Producing Program in the School of the Arts.  Her thesis addresses issues about audiences in our current environment of technology and social media. Allie sent me a series of questions that I found very worthwhile and provocative. For the February blog I would like to share her questions and my answers with you:

1. When you make work, do you have an audience in mind? If so, to what degree is the process of making the work affected by having a specific type of audience in mind vs. just knowing that you are making work for an audience?

As the very first audience member, the director must have the arrogance to believe in her soul that what she loves and responds to will be loved and responded to by vast numbers of people; by future audiences. As a director, if I try to make choices for anyone other than myself, the production will be led astray. That said, in rehearsal I must exercise consistent constraint, deep listening, humility and an intense interest in the art form. I must make sure that the staging is articulate and expressive so that the work can be “read” by spectators from disparate backgrounds.

2. When looking at where to tour or premiere a work, how much of a consideration is the audience at that venue?

As a theater artist, I do not address a particular audience; rather I speak to a specific part of each and every audience member. Every human being, and every audience member, has the capacity to respond openly to certain stimuli at particular moments in their lives. At certain times some people are perhaps more prepared than others to open themselves to experience certain themes, emotions, ideas and experiences. As an audience member there are times in my life when I am not prepared to be a good audience member. There are other times when I can be present in a way that makes the performance possible.

Currently SITI Company is preparing the theater is a blank page, a production that will premiere at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio in April. There are plans to bring the production to Los Angeles and of course I hope that it will enjoy a life in many other environments. The production, which I am co-directing with the visual artist Ann Hamilton, is about the spacious experience that reading induces and the potential for theater architecture to create these experiences of spaciousness. I hope that the theater is a blank page will be able to address the “part” of every audience member that has the capacity to respond to inner spaciousness.

3. As you’ve toured and presented work in different parts of the country and the world, have you noticed differences in the reaction to your work? What kind?

Chuck Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica provoked the most varied, painful, beautiful and enlightening experiences of any SITI Company production. We premiered the show at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville in March of 2001. For the festival audience as well as local Louisville theatergoers, the play was a romp; truly pleasurable and magical. Our next performance of bobrauschenbergamerica took place soon after the catalytic events of 9/11 in Stanford, Connecticut. The large audience, overly sensitive to current events, found the play’s depiction of cultural callousness and violence almost unbearable. It was a difficult night. The following season BAM audiences seemed to be healed by the experience, turning the performances into joyous, life affirming celebrations of being American. Following the invasion of Iraq we performed at the MC 93 in Bobigny, a Parisian left-wing neighborhood at a theater famous for its political rigor. For the opening gesture of our production, the actors sweep away a white canvas revealing a massive American flag. The audience nearly boo-ed. This was not a show that would speak with profundity or necessity to the French condition. The experience of sitting with the hyper judgmental audience felt painful and unnerving.

4. How do you feel about post-performance talkbacks? Do you find them useful, or should the art speak for itself?

Audiences are too often cut off from the process of making theater. I feel that the more that audiences are allowed into the adventure of the development of any given work, the healthier and more vital that work will become. When Peter Gelb first took over the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, he opened the doors of the theater for one day to allow audiences to walk, single file, across the stage. I remember a photo in the New York Times, a parade of audience members walked across the stage for eight hours, gazing into the auditorium with expressions of wonder.

The fact that many audience members have at one time performed in school plays gives them a real and physical sensation of playmaking. How is it possible to extend that empathetic sensation by inviting audiences into the theater? I do welcome post-performance talkbacks but I also feel that we can do more. I believe that exposing the creative process to audiences will actually strengthen the field as a whole. Theaters are sites of arts education where inventing new methods of audience interface must be consistently innovated.

5. How do you measure the impact of your work? Do you attempt to measure it, abstractly or concretely?

Perhaps the effect of a particular production is its influence in the world rather than in the numbers of audiences that actually see it. I believe in the power of “revolutions in small rooms.” A Chorus Line may never have occurred without Joe Chaikin’s investigations with the actors and writers of the Open Theater. Chaikin’s productions, “his revolutions in small rooms,” provided Michael Bennett and his Chorus Line collaborators with the permission to strike out and bring those ideas to a much larger public than ever experienced the work of the Open Theater.

That said, I do measure the impact of a work by the feeling in the room when it is happening.

And for some productions I do measure their impact by their longevity. Do they have a life? Do they travel?

But it is possible that some very successful productions will not be able to travel far and wide. the theater is a blank page, created for an audience of 120, will premiere in April within the expansive space of the Mershon, a theater with 2,500 seats. The mathematics simply make no sense. The production is made possible by the vision and sense of adventure of the directors of Wexner Center who have chosen, for their 25th anniversary, to celebrate the continuity and tenure of both SITI Company and Ann Hamilton with Columbus audiences. To tour such a piece will be a monumental task and an investment of resources. Of course we hope that extended touring will happen but the existence of the theater is a blank page may end up having an impact in unexpected ways.

6. Have you ever found the kind of work you make to be influenced by the kind of funding that might be available for it?

Every theatrical production is influenced by all of the conditions surrounding its creation. For example, the architecture of a given theater influences the design, the choreography and audience/actor dynamics. The landscape in which the theater building is set influences the experience of the play. The particular political moment affects the choices made in the rehearsal hall as well as the way that audiences understand a given production.

Funders and supporters do necessarily become part of the fabric of the play as well. Their own agendas, passions and commitments matter and can influence artistic activity. the theater is a blank page, for example, would not be happening without the enlightened imagination of the Wexner Center directors. We are connected, we are interdependent and the situation is splendid.

7. Could you talk a little bit about how your interactions with presenters have changed over the course of the life of SITI Company? How much of that change is due to the evolution of the company and how much do you think is due to changes in the industry as a whole?

Arts presenters at performing arts institutions are generally extraordinary individuals and true lovers of the arts. These women and men invest in artists and in their art by hiring orchestras, theater companies, dance companies and comedians to engage with their communities, thereby enriching the conversation and encouraging artistic adventure. Both the institutions and their communities become partners in the growth of the art form.

In this spirit, SITI Company has been consistently nourished and encouraged by our relationships with these arts presenters, their institutions and their audiences. I have found that the most successful engagements are the ones that are repeated over time. A three-year, a seven-year, even a ten-year relationship with a particular community has a much deeper and longer-lasting effect upon both SITI Company and upon the constituent audiences.

8. How do you feel about performing at educational institutions (universities, etc.) vs. exclusively theatrical venues?

Many of the most successful performing art centers in the United States are situated on university campuses, including the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana, the Wexner Center at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, the Center for the Art of Performance at U.C.L.A., Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina and many, many more. Perhaps one can compare the universities now to religious monasteries of the Dark Ages, where culture was celebrated and preserved for future generations.

The field would profit from more alliances and joint projects between the presenting organizations on university campuses and regional theaters around the country. This is an area that needs cultivation and attention.

9. One of the main principles of SITI Company is that international cultural exchange is important. Have you found ways to work that into your productions when you haven’t been touring?

Every production requires congress with “the other.” SITI’s interest in international cultural exchange emerges from our shared understanding that most significant artistic growth is a result of venturing outside of one’s own assumptions, previous experiences and imagined limitations. My own encounters with Japanese theater, specifically the work of Tadashi Suzuki, encouraged me to re-evaluate most all of the assumptions that I was holding onto about my own work. Additionally, I was radically changed as an artist by exposure to the German theater work of the 1980s. Currently the work of artists like Ivo von Hove and Romeo Castellucci send shock waves to my system that somehow require me to shuffle my thinking about what constitutes an effective theatrical experience. 

Recently SITI Company members and our Conservatory engaged in a one-week interchange with Double Edge Theatre, their apprentices, students and associated artists at The Farm in snowy Western Massachusetts. Although not specifically international, this interface became cultural exchange at its richest. Both constituencies were challenged and galvanized by both the great differences and the mutual complementarity of the other’s training and methodologies. The two approaches to theater seemed to be talking to each other and talking to us. The conversations-in-action were stimulating and life altering.

10. What are some characteristics that you would like to see more of in institutions that present SITI Company’s or your work?

Courage is probably the most important characteristic for presenting institutions, artists and their companies. We all need courage to break through the narrow limitations that our culture of diversion, consumption and impatience has foisted upon us. 

Patience too is key. We all need to plant fecund seeds and allow time for audiences to adjust. The institutions and the artists need to practice patience together.

11. Can you describe the process of finding commissions for new work?

Commissions are always the result of a congress of sensibilities between specific individuals who respect one another: the arts presenter and the artists. The art centers that offer commissions are generally run by extraordinary individuals who are enthusiasts and supporters of the arts and who have the courage to invest in artists that they love while spurring their communities on to unexpected adventures.