If you are one of the few people who actually reads this blog—to you, I say sorry we’ve been silent. We took a much needed break and now we are back in gear…or getting there, but there’ll be plenty of entries about our forthcoming project. Today is about the audience. In my first actual theatre class in high school taught by Mr. Gaines, the former Marine drill sergeant, I learned that theatre required two things. The ‘two As’ I think he called it: an actor and an audience. Makes sense. I then went on to study this theatre thing for at least 9 more years, and I can tell you, the audience was not mentioned a whole lot during that time. A few times we would do productions that changed the traditional seating of the audience: the premiere of Mark Medoff’s Stephanie Hero actually had a section of seating on wheels and was moved across the stage; Maria Irene Fornes’ beautiful Fefu and her Friends has a second act that splits the audience in to groups to see more personal, small room scenes requiring the actors to replay their scene several times; and of course, turning the old Hartke upper lobby into a barroom for Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings. There were more, of course, but I don’t need to run down my collegiate resume for you. I talk about them now for a couple of reasons. Mostly, they were exciting. They were exciting to work on and be a part of and hopefully exciting to be a part of the audience. Now, none of this is necessarily ground breaking stuff, but it all magnifies the point that there is a physical relationship between the audience and the actors. And as the great Daniel Stein says, “if it’s true for the physical, it’s true for the metaphysical (and vice versa).” (Pardon my terrible paraphrase Daniel.) So disrupting the traditional physical relationship disrupts the metaphysical relationship as well. And this is very powerful..and we all know great power and great responsibility yada yada. But really, it’s a powerful tool and can be used with great success. I had the awesome treat a year ago to work with Michael Rhod from Sojourn Theatre. He came to DC to direct Full Circle at Woolly Mammoth and this show was notable because of it’s use of space. We asked a great deal of the audience. We asked them to move, to stand, to adjust so they could see, to sit on cushions on the floor, to take care of themselves and be aware of the space. They way Michael can talk about space and audience is awesome. I won’t even try to quote him (maybe Rachel can add some thoughts later.) But he is someone continually thinking about the actor AND the audience.
Now, I know theatres talk about audience all the time, but it seems to be from the business point of view. The discussion is about how to get more audience, how to keep the audience, how to diversify the audience, how to train the audience to like the stuff being done…even the artsy stuff. The actual experience of the audience, I feel, is being overlooked. I struggle with being an audience member. I am just ending a year of seeing 2 plays…yes 2. I’m back in the swing of things now, last weekend alone I topped that by seeing three shows! But I have to make myself go. I dread going. I want to love the experience. I have often loved the experience. But so much of the time I am bored and feel forgotten in the whole mix.
And now we finally start around to the point. This has been working around in my brain for a while. It is a constant discussion we have in rehearsals and meetings for dog & pony dc shows. We always ask ourselves the question, “How is the audience being integrated in to this show?” Notice I didn’t say ‘interact’. My Facebook feed is all abuzz with Peter Marks’ blog entry about how much he hates audience interaction theatre. You can read it here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/arts-post/2010/10/on_the_office_last_week.html
Two colleagues posted this article and both have numerous lengthy comments on both sides of the fence…or in this case, both sides of the fourth wall. It’s been good reading for sure. This whole idea of getting the audience involved is not new of course but has been having a bit of a renaissance if you will. Check these out: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2010/feb/28/interactive-theatre-connected-coney-lift and http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/07/theater-talkback-from-seat-to-stage/?ref=theater
I think I’m pretty clear on my opinion of the whole thing: involving the audience is crucial, but bullying, shocking, or even harming the audience to get a reaction or because “it’s cool” or whatever is cheap and useless. I don’t really want anyone dragging me up on stage either, but I also need something to keep me awake during plays these days. What really gets me is what is beneath this “leave me to sit in my seat in the dark” attitude of Marks and many other theatre goers and makers. It feels like a denial of theatre to be an art form. All types of art go through changes and movements and styles. Most of us took some kind of theatre history class and should know that this psychological-realism-sit-in-the-dark-proscenium-stage-invisible-fourth-wall stuff is not the be all and end all. It only showed up 100 or so years ago, but it’s not going anywhere. At the same time, any art form must be able to change and grow and rebel and challenge what came before—that’s how we got here in the first place.