The Clebut: Ovations, Strangers, Hangovers, Oreos

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"Our Greatest Year," a multimedia play about Cleveland sports and the sadness they bring to all those who dare to care about them, debuted in New York City in May of 2011, but didn't make it to Cleveland until last weekend. Playwright Robert Attenweiler and animator/artist/writer Scott Henkle kept a diary of the three-show run at Cleveland's Dobama Theater. Part one is here, and part two is here.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Akron Canton Airport

Time: 11:45am

Stimulant-laden beverages consumed: 2 cups coffee (1 French Press, 1 Gas Station), 1 Five Hour Energy (and only because there is no drink offering more hours of energy)

Only Food Option Between Me and New York: Arby’s

Performances Completed: 3

Show Strike Time: 20 minutes (beat that, New York Theater Workshop!)

As I prepare to leave, I can attest that Cleveland teaches you that:

- You still cannot bring knives onto airplanes. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s okay if it’s on a keychain. Even if this knife has made it onto airplanes in the past, you still cannot bring knives onto airplanes. I cannot stress this enough.

- Some very rich men hope that Scott Raab, who ran our Friday night post-show talkback, keeps what he learned while working on The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search For The Soul of LeBron James off the record. But, let me tell this one story… [at which point a sniper bullet hits the brim of my 1997 Cleveland Indians American League Champion ball cap, sending it spinning around on my head] … Actually, nothing. It was nothing. Forget it.

- Marla Ridenour, the first woman to cover the Cleveland Browns, trained herself to focus on the players only from the chin up so she can’t say for certain whether the entire locker room dropped their towels when, following a rule of former coach, Sam Rutigliano, she called out “Woman in the locker room!” before entering. The players swear they were all completely naked for the entire post-game interview. Ridenour assumes they must be telling the truth.

And that is about that. I may have learned other things at some point, but I lost my ability to hold a thought in my head for more than five seconds sometime on Friday. I’d love an Oreo right about now. Okay, getting it together.

In the end, this trip was another chapter in my continued fumbling with the question of how to make people care. One (modest) goal I always have for my productions is the hope that people I don’t know will come to the show. Usually, that doesn't happen. Every person in every audience seems to have a maximum degree of separation from me of three or so. You can fill a small theater with people this way, but it feels somehow less exciting.

I had the same ambition for Cleveland: not only to reach out to audience members who don’t know me, but get them to reach back and hug me and tell me everything is going to be fine and, maybe give me some Oreos or, like, $10,000. That’s the way it works, right? Especially, in the realm of digital dissemination that’s the way it works. You are able to reach people. Everyone and everything is reachable.

But reaching people is not the same as making people care. And for every two tickets sold (or one click or view or like), one person has to care. And caring doesn’t happen by accident. You need to work for that, and earn it.

That’s what I was thinking when I watched the Saturday night show fill up. Saturday night was the show that we had forced, as a child, to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee and, therefore, it was stunted and runty compared to the other two performances. But, between late Friday and Saturday afternoon, tickets started moving. Presales were preselling and I was fielding questions from the call-center about ticket availability at the box office (my response: yes, though, much like at one of my New York places of employment, it was cash only).

It had worked. All the posters put up. All the stacks of postcards set down then taken by the wind. Every one of the 17,000 emails, blog posts, tweets, status updates, the $150,000 I gave some guy to run a subliminal message encouraging people to see our show during the second overtime of a game between the Ohio University Bobcats and North Carolina Tar Heels, a game I was certain would not be settled in the mere three periods it actually took. This had all worked. I was finding my general audience and with it fulfilling my destiny of being the guy who finds his destiny during one hectic week in Cleveland.

Except, back at the theater, I was astounded as I watched it fill... with people with a maximum degree of separation from me of three. Seriously? Again? I had to travel 400 miles and consume my weight in bread, cheese and beer (okay, that last part was fine) just to have the same type of audience I have in New York?

But it wasn’t the same. Not really. Yes, I knew these people, or knew how I knew them. But, it occurred to me after some time—possibly during the third or the thirty-third drink that evening—that I didn’t know many of these people a week ago. Or I didn’t know the people that the people I knew had brought with them. Or that the third degree of separation was really pretty random. It’s that degree of separation, after all, where you hit and then fill in all your holes with pay dirt.

It’s easy to get caught up in the myth of the anonymous audience member. He or she is, after all, unknown and, therefore, brimming with possibilities. But we, ourselves, are still the best method of making people care. We, ourselves, are the best method for encouraging people to take our work to heart and so build a larger audience: one that is not anonymous but, instead and at least in part, an audience that is vaguely familiar. Do it right, and they all become people we know.

So: thanks for the destiny, Cleveland. It tastes like Oreos.

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