A course at Theater J for theater lovers looks ahead to post-COVID change

How to become a more engaged, discerning, and empowered audience member.

Change is coming.

As the DMV theater community is reeling and reckoning with the effects of the coming post-COVID-19 world and as artists of color are speaking their minds freely, what awaits? What might the future be for theater management, actors, and especially audiences?

Is it time now to rethink theater traditions about the role of the theater patrons? Is this the time to reexamine expectations of theater audiences and traditional power structures of the professional theater? How might theatergoers begin to empower themselves for the changing DMV theater ecology?

Those thoughts brought me to a Theater J course entitled Becoming a Raised Consciousness Audience Member. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Adam Immerwahrand Managing Director JoJo Ruf, the course is co-presented by the EDCJCC’s Morris Cafritz Center for SocialResponsibility as part of Theater J’s Classes for Theater Lovers. The course is taught by Rachel Grossman.

Becoming a Raised Consciousness Audience Member is described by Theater J as a class “for everyone looking to become a more culturally and identity-informed patron.” That alone led me to want to know more. While the four session class is now closed to additional students, its title and detailed description as an interactive class caught my attention:

“Are you interested in becoming a more engaged, discerning audience member, who leans into crucial conversations around who we are as individuals and a country when attending the theatre? Join director, devised theater artist, and audience-enthusiast Rachel Grossman in exploring ways to bring raised-consciousness about our social identities into our ‘roles’ as audience members.”

This course intrigued me as a way to navigate these changing times for theater. Perhaps it is an experience other theater companies might consider for their own audience base, with their own teachers and artists leading the course.

With that as a preface, I had a conversation with Rachel Grossman to learn more.

Rachel Grossman

Grossman made clear the course is designed to “explore together the role of the audience with theater makers.” That involves “the active participation” of the students “exploring theater culture and behavior that has been passed down by generations” of theatergoers, so that audiences can become “highly informed” by who they are and those that preceded them.

With active participation, the students learn they have “agency as a theater audience member.” What’s more, Grossman wants students to understand that “the audience is integral to the creative talent” in a production. How, she asks, can audiences learn to “identify intersections and differing world views,” as they come to know who they are in a safe space, even if it brings both “discomfort and comfort.”

What are the roles and responsivities of a theater audience for social justice? Are they to be active participants? How can they develop their critical thinking? How can they engage with theater artistic management on issues such as race and identity in theatrical performances?

To help guide the class through such questions, Grossman will be joined by three guest artists also have a “social justice perspective”: Danielle A. Drakes (DC-based actor, director, and educator); Katherine MacHolmes (Omaha-based theater maker, actor, activist, and community builder); and Bea Udeh (UK-based writer, producer, mentor, and poet).

From my invigorating conversation with Grossman, I sensed the course was about empowering theater audiences to become active—and once active to empower themselves to speak openly, to challenge theater traditions with the tools to go out and speak up.

I was struck by Grossman’s wanting the course to motivate and be “joyful,” even as it raised provocative, perhaps uncomfortable issues. She hoped the students would gain new tools as audience members (and as donors as well) to work to meet the current moment as they deeply and forthrightly consider and then take anti-racism actions.

Information about all the Theater J Classes for Theater Lovers is online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

1 COMMENT

  1. Yes indeed. Let’s see casting options expanded by AaronPosner to include DMV actors of color. Let’s move beyond the AugustWilson-as-only-option paradigm.

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