The official "Beertown" time capsule.

In September 2010, dog & pony dc (d&pdc) began developing a new show starting with nothing but two books and a question. Our goal was to create an original work as a collective from start to finish; the only thing we knew about the end product was that it would be fully produced 14 months later. Well: we also knew that in this production we wanted to push the boundaries of “audience integration.”

d&pdc is an ensemble-based devised theatre company that creates new ways for audiences to experience theatre. We carry a self-described “healthy obsession” with defining the performer-audience relationship for each show.

“Audience integration” is a foundation of d&pdc’s devising process; the audience’s role in performance is discussed from each project’s birth to its fully-realized production. The approach is highly elastic. On one end of the spectrum: the role of the audience is as witness. At the opposite end: the event doesn’t move forward without audience propulsion.

In 2010, we wanted to explore the more risky end. We wanted to create a show in which the audience members were active, vocal participants who ultimately determined the outcome every night. To do that, the audience had to feel compelled to act; they had to become invested and take ownership. In other words: they had to care.

What makes us care? “A crisis” was our initial answer.

Halfway through the conceptualization of Beertown, the ensemble developed an elaborate storyline in which, during a ho-hum city council meeting in which the audience were cast as citizens in attendance, it is revealed the city of Beertown is finally in financial ruin and we had to determine that moment a course of action: dissolve and become incorporated into the town next door?; make a last-ditch revitalization effort?; allow state officials to take over?

We started researching fiscal management legislation in Michigan and New York, and vigorously debated which characters should represent the different sides of the issue and what options we should provide to vote on. Lots of tension. High stakes. The stuff of great, involving stories, right?

Soon enough we realized that we were creating a drama that was too complex and likely too foreign. There was no clear hook or “in” for the audience and, more importantly, there was no immediate repercussion for them to experience collectively. If Beertown was dissolved—so be it. The vote didn’t have a real impact on anyone.

Back to the drawing board.

We knew we wanted the audience to “care” and what would demonstrate their level of “caring” was participating in debate and vote.

Ah-ha!

We needed to build community and then empower that community to make a decision about the collective. In order to have an impact, there needed to be an impact.

A new set of tactics emerged for us: create common ground, unite the audience on that ground, and provide them opportunity to make a decision that had an immediate and personal impact that night, in the theatre, on everyone.

The ensemble began to think on a more simple, detailed scale. Everyone needed to know each other’s name, they needed to be uniting in celebration, they need to participate in shared rituals.

One of the stars counts votes for time capsule worthiness.

In the end, in the full production of Beertown, the audience was asked to bring a dessert to share in a pot luck; everyone received name tags and commemorative t-shirts; we said the pledge of allegiance together and sang a town hymn; and, ultimately, we were given a task to complete collectively: determine what items should go into the town time capsule to represent us as a community on this exact day.

Through the simple tasks and rituals we built into the framework of the show, Beertown allowed audiences to participate first-hand in an artistic-based act of civic engagement. Every night the audience members became residents of Beertown over the course of the performance and then voted on what items best represented us—the Beertown of the night—for interment in the time capsule. Beertown’s tagline aptly described the experience: “creating community and revising its history, nightly.”

What was exciting for me about every conversation during Beertown were how real they were, despite being completely fabricated. Becoming Beertonians allowed rooms full of strangers night after night to expose their values and debate passionately about what mattered to them.

I believe what made Beertown successful is that we were not trying to affect social change, we were trying to create an engaging work of art. Like children will play at “house,” d&pdc played at “community.” We imagined this town and invited everyone to move there for the night.

dog & pony dc would likely never claim Beertown as theatre for civic dialogue or social justice. That is not the impact we seek to make with our work.

And yet, d&pdc seeks to break down traditional barriers and change the relationship between artists, audience, and art, and provide mechanisms for audience to take ownership of their artistic experiences, not just digest what we put before them.

Maybe that leads to broader thinking about the world and our place in it. Some might call that social change, but we call it making theatre.

(p.s. We measured the impact of Beertown using this Google form. A summary of audience responses accessible here.)

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.