Decreasing Capacities to Increase Ego

A second attempt at “Trend” pieces.

In the dark and damp basement of Warner Gymnasium ten people walk through watching as actors perform in devised theater pieces. It’s an intimate and engaging experience for all involved, actors and audience members alike.

Seniors Erin Amlicke and Julia Melfi took a different approach to their senior capstone projects. Rather than use an already-written text and just direct a play like so many seniors do as part of their culminating projects, Amlicke and Melfi proposed and were granted the opportunity to work with a cast and devise their own shows. Throughout the month of January, Amlicke and Melfi worked with the same set of actors to create two very different productions. Amlicke’s Playtime looked at the process of creating in a meta and self-aware way, asking the audience to think critically about their own creative processes and desires to create. Melfi’s Devour Me crafted a fantastical world full of dragons, fear, and wonder. Both women had full audiences for every performance and it was well-received by all who saw. Third year Theater major Ian Emerson said, “It was amazing, I love immersive theater and I’m glad Oberlin is allowing people to explore it”

It’s wonderful that Emerson had such a great experience at the show, but so few people were able to. Each performance of Devour Me and Playtime housed only 10 audience members. Does a full house mean as much when there are only 10 people seeing a show and the majority of the audience is faculty members and Theater majors? It’s easy to argue that these two seniors were limited by space, but there’s more to it than that: people just aren’t seeing shows and smaller audience capacities create the illusion of full houses.

There is tons of publicity: posters, emails, facebook invites, tweets, the whole nine yards to try to get people to buy tickets for theatrical performances at Oberlin. Nonetheless, attendance for theater productions tends to be the same: faculty, Theater majors, and assorted friends of people involved. Though the numbers for attendance are up this year, they really couldn’t go anywhere but up after dismal turnouts at Mainstage and LabSeries shows alike last year. This shouldn’t speak for the quality of the productions, but rather to the apathy of many Oberlin students and the other exciting opportunities on campus like concerts by big name music artists like Joey Bada$$.  So what better way to make a show seem desirable than to advertise it as an elite and limited experience? Lowering audience capacities makes a show seem like a more unique experience and speaks to the desires of those Oberlin students who wish to be on the cutting edge, outside and above their mainstream peers. Lowering audience capacities help combat apathy. And what better way to make those involved feel fulfilled by their involvement than to have people want to see the show?

The shrinking audience capacities are directly influenced by the lack of attendance at Oberlin College Theater productions. It is a rare and exciting moment when a show sells out, but damn, does it feel good for everyone involved in the production. Decreasing audience capacity allows actors, designers, directors, faculty, everyone, to boast about selling out a show. It feeds the egos of everyone involved.

The trend seems to have started last year during a production co-directed by Melfi and then 5th year Linus Ignatius. The show was House and audience members were given little information about the show other than its setting: the Frank Lloyd Wright House just a few blocks from campus. The show ran for 4 performances and because of the nature of the setting—a museum—there was a cap put on how many people could attend. The cap was purely out of procedural necessity: the Wright House is a museum and must be treated as such.

Ignatius already made it seem sexy to be able to go to House. Each person lucky enough to grab a ticket was told to dress formally and meet in front of Oberlin Market where they would be picked up and driven to the Frank Lloyd Wright House. The well-dressed audience watched silently and followed different characters around the house—each audience member choosing who they followed and thus which plotline they saw. The tickets sold like hotcakes and people begged Ignatius and cast members for a way to get in.

There began to be excessive Facebook posts about getting tickets to House and the egos of everyone involved grew like the Grinch’s heart after he discovers the joys of Christmas. That is to say, everyone got cocky. Rather than disappointment at a turnout of 25 people for a show with roughly 15 people in it to begin with, the cast was ecstatic. The hype around the show was great and it brought in new faces, but ultimately, only a select few really got to enjoy the experience, and everyone bragged about it.

Capstones and student-directed shows like Playtime, Devour Me, and House serve an educational purpose primarily for the directors who get to see what it’s like to direct, and in these cases, create, a show from start to finish. But shouldn’t the directors be wont to share their work with as many people as possible?

It’s a double edge sword because after putting months of work and preparation into a performance, those involved want to perform it for people who want to participate and be active audience members. Playing a show to an empty house on opening night (as is so common with shows performed in Oberlin College’s black box “Little Theater”) is discouraging and depletes the performance experience for the actors and designers and especially for the person who proposed the project.

It’s understandable why audience capacities are shrinking at Oberlin from an artist perspective: Theater majors are in the game for a reason. I say this with love and from experience, we Theater majors want attention and recognition and we’d rather get it from an intimate group of engaged audience members than scattered faces in an almost-empty theater. It’s scary to go out on a limb and produce something new when it seems all people want to see is college standards like Rent or Spring Awakening. If the ego stroking that comes from small audiences is helping artists put on more adventurous productions like Playtime and Devour Me, maybe it’s not all bad that Theater at Oberlin is becoming so exclusive. But maybe next time a friend asks if you want to see the latest production, you should say yes, because you never know what cutting-edge production you’re going to miss out on while the Theater majors are pumping up their egos.

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