Tag Archives: Kennedy Center

Consider the Audience by Kitty Felde

It was quite the weekend of theatre for me as an audience member

The Well-Heeled Audience at the Kennedy Center for “Hamilton”

I finally saw “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center. Yes, it was a road show, where the singers cheated on the high notes and the very pretty fellow who played the title role kept blending into the scenery. Oh, but the actor who played Aaron Burr made me believe the show was named after him! A fine production viewed from a fine seat on the first balcony.

The night before, I was at a different theatre, seeing an old favorite: “The Pirates of Penzance.” It, too, was a touring production from a pair of Chicago theatre companies – The Hypocrites and The House Theatre.

It was fabulous. To quote from the aforementioned show, “Pirates” “blew us all away.”

The reason: the decision to put the audience at the heart of the action.
The experience began the minute you walked through the theatre door. Every cast member was onstage, singing not Gilbert & Sullivan, but beachy standards like “Sloop John B” and “Margaritaville.” A tiki bar was located on one side of the stage and remained open for business throughout the entire show. A batch of beachballs were flying overhead – audience members batting them at actors, musicians, and each other. I thought I was at a Dodger game.

The audience – an equal mix of senior citizens, 20-somethings, and parents with dozens of very small children – was invited to take a seat onstage.

Oh, sure, some of us fuddy duddies sat on chairs safely away from the action, but most of the audience was happy to plop down on painted wooden benches and ice chests and kiddie wading pools that filled the stage. They were instructed that whenever the action moved to the exact space where they were seated, they’d be politely tapped on the shoulder. This was their invitation to get out of the way. Fast. At times, it looked like a giant game of musical chairs as grownups and kids scrambled to find another seat.

Several members of the audience were recruited to actively participate in the play by holding up the Union Jack or the skull and crossbones of a pirates’ flag. Each was printed on giant beach towels. Parasols were handed out to young ladies who dutifully twirled them this way and that, trying to keep up with the cast member.

The smallest of kids congregated atop the lifeguard station at stage center. It was a magnet for them. Rather than making them scoot, the actors acknowledged their presence. The Pirate King and Frederic would declare that they were entirely alone – and then roll their eyes at the 3 year olds who surrounded them. The rest of the audience was delighted – when they weren’t scared half out of their wits that one of those toddlers would fall off the platform.

The evening was amazing. The energy bounced off the walls.
What a pity when those youngest of audience members discover that all theatre isn’t like this.

Which makes me ask: why not?

Playwriting can feel like such a selfish act. Yes, we have “important stories” that we believe must be shared with the world. But they are our stories. We hope they will resonate with the world in some way, and sometimes they do. (A young man told me that seeing my war crimes play “A Patch of Earth” was the reason he became an attorney specializing in international law.) But usually, it’s a bunch of people sitting in the dark watching a bunch of actors pretending to be imaginary people we made up.

I’ve been thinking hard the past week about the role of the audience in theatre and what I can do as a playwright to make the theatrical experience more about US and less about ME.

I have no immediate solutions, but just asking the question is a start. So I’ll also ask it of you: is it our responsibility as playwrights to also consider the audience? How can we bring them into the theatrical experience? Do we want to? Does the audience want to? How does that change the work?

The mission statement of The Hypocrites is to “re-introduce communal connection into contemporary theater by embracing the desire of all people to bond with each other, especially while experiencing the same event.” The House Theatre wants to “explore connections between Community and Storytelling through a unique theatrical experience.” What’s my mission statement as a playwright?

Which brings me back to “Hamilton.”

Most of the Kennedy Center audience was as familiar with the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda as the actors onstage. Here and there, you could hear someone two seats over whisper, “teach ‘em how to say goodbye, say goodbye” or “never gonna be satisfied.” We all wanted to sing along. It was a show that did speak to us personally and we wanted to be part of it.

But we were at the Kennedy Center, not a black box theatre in rural Maryland. We knew that if we broke into song, a gray-haired, red-coated usher would find us and take us away.

Now that I’ve seen this production of “Pirates,” I’m never going to be satisfied to sit quietly in the dark.


Playwright Kitty Felde is also host of the award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast. Her play about the LA Riots “Western & 96th” will be workshopped this September at DC’s Spooky Action Theater and its New Works in Action series.

Throw out the kitchen sink dramas!

by Kitty Felde

This past weekend was DC’s annual “Page to Stage” Festival. It’s a tremendous gift from the Kennedy Center to local playwrights. Every Labor Day weekend, the Kennedy Center opens up rehearsal rooms, the Millennium Stages, donor event rooms, every nook and cranny on every floor, to staged readings of plays by local writers. Imagine the Music Center turning us loose for an entire weekend!

This year also included a special seminar for writers given by Michael Bigelow Dixon, formerly the literary manager and associate artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Dixon wants us to stop thinking about conventional reality and play.

Reading hundreds of plays for the Humana Festival, he says none of the current batch included anything other than realistic plays – kitchen sink dramas, domestic conflicts, even those that got away from home and hearth and tackled international issues were still written in conventional, realistic fashion.

He wants us to dream and has written a book to spark our imaginations about making theatre THEATRICAL.

Why? Not just to get our plays noticed, but to attract a modern audience.

But how do you do this? Do we throw out everything we know about writing plays and reinvent the wheel? Not necessarily. Dixon has a few suggestions:

  • – Interruption: the “reality” of the stage play is interrupted by “real” life. How many audiences paid big bucks to see “Spiderman” for the play itself? More were there to see if a real-life event like an accident might happen. Is there a way to bring reality into our artificial worlds?
  • – Give the audience a choice: call it a gimmick, but from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” to Alan Ayckbourn’s “Intimate Exchanges,” plays that let the audience choose its own ending are very popular. Is there a way to invite the audience to participate in the creation of your play?
  • – Anthropomorphize a character: put a talking animal on stage. Or a lot of them. Hint: there were WAY too many dog characters in our workshop.
  • – Interdisciplinary approach: try rewriting your play as a radio play – what do you have to eliminate? What do you have to add to make the audience understand what’s going on? Then rewrite it as a graphic novel. Then go back to the original script to add SOME of the elements.
  • – Ekphrastic drama – or what I call “dancing about architecture” – include other art forms in your work
  • – Distort time and space – ala Jose Rivera’s “Cloud Tectonics”
  • – Recontextualization – tell your story from someone else’s point of view. Think “Amadeus” and Salieri’s version of Mozart

Just a few thoughts to shake up your “realistic” world.
The book: “Breaking from Realism: A Map/Quest for the Next Generation” by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Jon Jory

Day Two: Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation – part three

Theatre for Young Audiences – Michael Bobbitt – Adventure Theatre and Kim Peter Kovac – Kennedy Center

TYA includes adults performing for kids, kids performing for kids, and teen theatre. Theatre for Young Audiences is the operative word these days. Denmark has 60 children’s theatres. The best theatre professionals in the country work for it.

Trends: theatre for the very young – 2-5 year olds, baby theatre, which is all about discovery and sound, where seeing yourself in the mirror is a theatrical event. (Just like actors!) Baby theatre is becoming huge.

Over the past ten years, there’s been more money and resources available for TYA. Regional theatres are doing more. Perhaps because Disney went to Broadway. And made money. Also, there’s grant money. Similar to black theatre in the 1990’s, funding organizations are looking at whether a theatre is doing educational and youth theatre. There’s also a trend where performing arts centers are booking shows…but the person who does it is also the “community engagement” person.

New work? People are looking at more popular titles. Michael Bobbit says he has the same administrative needs as a big theatre, but only charges 15 bucks for tickets. So famous titles brings in an audience. There’s a huge amount of work for adaptations.

Length: 45-hour length for under ten. One study showed the ideal length for 4-8 year olds – idela length is 47 minutes. For an older audience, 50-70 is ideal.

Getting the rights: sometimes a playwright has the rights. The Kenendy Center gets rights from the publisher, pays them, and then commissions the playwright. Make sure everyone knows there’s no money. 3-12% of gross box office is given to the picture book writer, 1.5% to the playwright or $1500 (Adventure Theatre). Kennedy pays 3% to the book writer; playwrights get 6-8% of the box office.

Who owns the play? At Adventure, they own it. Kennedy never owns the play.

Look for works in the public domain to adapt. Don’t discount movies, songs, TV shows, poems, lots of possibilities for adaptation. Only about a third of plays produced are new scripts not adaptations.

Cast size: 2-6 is great. Two is the best. Think about how a cast can be doubled – or shrunk.

Other advice: know your audience. Knowing how to tie your shoe is a big thing to a kid. Know what’s on a kid’s curriculum and reading list to see what they’re working on in school. Fairy tales are out of fashion right now. Teen theatre is issue related. But above all, it has to be a good play, not a lesson.

Popular TYA plays:
For very young (2-3 or 5) audiences: “Go Dog Go,” “Good Night Moon,” “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” “Knufflebunny,” “Tick Tac Moo,” “Miss Nelson is Missing (Joan Cushing),” “Flat Stanley,” Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Day,” “Ferdinand.”

Ages 8-12 – “Holes,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Anne Frank and Me,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” Laura Ingels Wilder, “Skellig” by David Almond.

Cold submissions: Adventure: no capacity; only doing popular titles. Kennedy – only commissions.

Last thoughts: parents and teachers are the gatekeepers, deciding what shows kids come see. Diversity is good business.