09/18/2012 01:51 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

When Listening to the Audience Goes Too Far

"We choose our season largely in response to what our patrons tell us. Lately they are interested in seeing shows that they already know."

The quote above, from the producing artistic director of a large not-for-profit theatre, appeared recently in a perfectly innocuous "season preview" round-up, the kind found in newspapers and online resources around the country at this time of year. Some of you may well be surprised by the sentiment, though it is one with which I'm familiar. My only surprise is to see it stated so baldly. I'm not naming the theatre, or the publication, because I have no desire to castigate or demonize the specific organization, since this practice is hardly unique. It is the issue that's worth discussing.

For those who traffic in the language of grants, or for that matter the universe of arts blogs concerned with mission and marketing, it is quite common to read about the necessity of serving one's community, one's audience. I certainly support that sentiment, but serving does not mean servant. Not-for-profit arts organizations exist to serve by leading, offering work which connects with a community, local, regional or national, by finding the correct balance between being able to sell tickets and raise money on the one hand, and, on the other, advancing genuine artistic goals that support artists, craftspeople and technicians dedicated to creating good work.

In the recent economic climate, there has been a flight to safety in so many areas of society, making it harder for organizations to be progressive in their work. Some have been unable to negotiate the enormously difficult economic waters, and we daily read of the fallout, be it the diminution of New York's City Opera, the suspension of production by Minneapolis' Penumbra Theatre, or the labor struggles in orchestras just chronicled by Diane Ragsdale.

It would be glib to say that theatres which produce according to the express wishes of their patrons become de facto commercial producers, because that's not fair to the commercial sector. While many decry the rise in Broadway musicals based on well-known movies, they are at least new works for the stage, and they do not represent the entirety of commercial product. Even commercial revivals don't always play it safe, since many seek to reinvent material, even if they attempt to insure their venture with famous actors. And new work does still debut under commercial aegis, even if the majority of new work is now created in not-for-profit companies.

As I mentioned, the idea of doing what one's audience requests is not new. Since I began in this business, I've heard about companies that survey their audiences and point blank ask them what they'd like to see the next year. I'm pleased to say that I've never worked for one. And there's an essential flaw in this question of what people want to see, since audience members can only name shows which they've already seen; you can't choose something which doesn't yet exist. "Familiar" work is the inevitable and immutable result. While a generic box for new play or new musical might appear on such survey, and might get checked now and again, if the risk of producing new work is taken at such a company, it's very likely that the audience will only respond to work that feels very much like what they've seen before, and that experimentation and innovation - especially if it turns out to be unsuccessful artistically - will only reinforce the flight to the safety of the known.

Don't let me give you the impression that I'm opposed to companies that specialize in classics, or revivals. Those are absolutely valid missions - so long as the productions are not trapped in amber, trooped out every five years because of their proven box office appeal. If the text is always approached as new, so long as there is a creative rather than replicative spark, I say go for it.

Once upon a time in theatre in America, there's no question that the known dominated. Think of Eugene O'Neill's father touring for decades as The Count of Monte Cristo or William Gillette's sinecure as Sherlock Holmes; that was the norm.

But that's not what not-for-profit arts organizations were created to do. It's important to note that the old actor-manager model, in which a company was built around a singular star has given way to companies where artistic directors are charged with understanding, serving and leading the artistic appetites of her or his audience and supporting artists by creating homes for their work. If an artistic director opts to produce by survey, then they are certainly a producer, but they may have well abandoned the right to claim artistry. If they don't explore work beyond the most standard repertoire, if they don't bring exciting artists to bear, if they don't feel strongly enough to decide for themselves what they believe should be on stage, then perhaps 'artist' shouldn't be in their title.

Am I being harsh, judgmental, inflexible? Perhaps, and I know that reality is an endless series of gradations, of balances. But so long as organizations slavishly serve, rather than creatively embrace and advance, we run the risk that success in the former model will create ever greater pressure on the latter. We have seen how opera companies and orchestras in particular struggle to incorporate modern work in their repertoire, risking creative stagnation. If we are not constantly creating opportunities and appetites for the new in every art form, then each will, at some point, collapse in on itself, like a TV channel that plays nothing but reruns. However much fun that may seem initially, at a certain point, the nostalgia burns out and if there's nothing new, the form dies.

It is the responsibility of a not-for-profit artistic director to serve and lead and audience, a board, a staff, while at the same time serving and advancing the art form; I like to believe that most do. But if they outsource their most important responsibility to anyone else, even their audience; if they abdicate initiative in order to minimize risk; if that's the only way an organization can survive, then they're just staving off the inevitable and their audience, ultimately, will lose.