Richard Stefano – PME-811 – Blog Post 6: Audience Conditioning

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Audience Conditioning: The ability for an audience to accept or understand an experience without alienation. Cultural factors, previous media consumption, and method of presenting the experience can all “condition” the audience to be more receptive.

In Module 2 of this course we defined “creativity”, and I keep finding myself referencing Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk. He describes one method of creative thinking as bringing multiple domains together to create something new. My previous post considered the idea of background and cultural context in television series, and how effective the use of montage can be in giving an impression or idea of a time, place, and/or culture. This is not a new idea, and – in fact – I first encountered it when studying the history of musical theatre in university. That brought me to a combination of my focus (exploring cultural context and use of media in the classroom) and an idea pulled from my drama studies.

Three examples of the concept of “Audience conditioning” follow:

Musical Theatre Workshop

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First, there is a famous musical called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”. The original production was workshopped and staged in various cities, but it always failed to connect with audiences. That might surprise you, since now it’s known as an incredibly successful musical that even has a film adaptation. 

The reason it kept flopping in workshops was because of the opening number: The original version had a slow introduction that recalled the Greek Classical theatre the musical was referencing. After it failed to work, Stephen Sondheim wrote a new opening love song that was much catchier. It still didn’t work. 

The problem? The musical is a farce. It’s ridiculous. It has a romantic plot, but it’s not a romance. So Jerome Robbins (most famous for doing the choreography for West Side Story) suggested that the opening number needed to prepare audiences for that ridiculous experience. So Sondheim wrote one of the most famous musical numbers of all time to open the show (see below), and it worked (Source here). The audience ate it up and the show went on to be ridiculously successful because audiences were prepared to receive what was coming next. Explaining “This is a farce.” isn’t enough. The audience needed to be immersed in that opening number, or risk rejection of the whole piece.

A Television Show

Second, there was a very famous TV series called “Glee”. If you watch the first season of Glee followed by the last season, you will be shocked by 1: the fall in quality, and 2: the difference in the staging of the musical numbers. The musical performances in the first half of the first season of Glee all took place either in fantasy sequences, or in reality – with high school levels of production and choreography. An example is below:

One of the reasons for this is that North American audiences don’t have the same conditioning that many audiences do. Especially in England. Theatre, pantomime, musical theatre, etc. have all – historically and in modern times – been a huge part of English culture. Not so much in America. By the second season of Glee, the musical numbers were completely impossible to stage for a high school, and took place in reality – even if they involved background dancers spontaneously joining in. And only the die-hard fans stuck with it. There were other problems, but watching the later musical numbers can be… off-putting.  If you don’t believe that cultural difference might exist…

England and America: History and Culture

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Finally, there was another famous TV series called “Skins”. I don’t recommend watching it, necessarily. But at the end of the first season, a character is hit by a bus. “Skins” is a UK production, and after the character is hit by that bus, the entire cast (even the recipient of the bus-hitting) breaks into a cover of “Wild World” by Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens).

When I referenced this to my friend, she had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently, I’d watched the UK version, while she had watched the US cut of the UK version (not to be confused with the US remake). The UK version of the above scene was screened for American audiences and they hated it. I mean they hated it to the point that they removed it from the US version of the DVD (Source here.) Why did it work in the UK, but not in the US?

800 words… Sorry.

Again, I’ve gone on about something only adjacent to what I said I was focusing on but: Isn’t this a part of what we try to do with pre-reading? To mentally, emotionally, culturally prepare students to accept some new experience? Don’t we want to remove the alienation from a new novel or other piece of art? And it isn’t just telling them what to expect. That didn’t work for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and it won’t work for my Chinese students reading Fahrenheit 451. There’s something about “conditioning” them for an experience, through an experience, that can help them be more receptive.

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