Audience Expectations and Expectations of Audience
The “theatrical paradigm” is, in my words only, that theatre only exists in the presence of an audience. A performance without the audience is just a gathering of theatre artists doing stuff for no reason. Some call it masturbation; I call it rehearsal. Similarly, an audience without a performance is, I don’t know, just a really boring party or a demonstration of some kind. I take the idea of the theatrical paradigm a step further. I believe that any theatrical event is 50% performance and 50% audience.
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This is my list of Theatre Artist Expectations for the Audience. Feel free to differ, to add, to subtract. Click on “comments” at the bottom of this essay to make your voice heard.
1. Don’t distract or detract.
You are in a shared space. What you do affects the performance, and it affects the audience around you. Here follows a long list of behaviors that should really be obvious:
Turn off your cell phone. If you can’t remember to turn it off, leave it in your car.
Control your child. If you cannot control your child, leave him/her at home. A babysitter is not an expense, it is an investment in your personal life experience.
Don’t talk loudly to your friend. In fact, don’t even talk in a low murmur; theatres are designed for sound to carry, and you are distracting the actors by having a running conversation with your friend. A few comments here and there are fine; an extended dialogue is not.
Don’t put your feet on the edge of the stage. Don't put your legs or your stuff in the aisle.
Go to the bathroom before the show starts, and again at intermission if necessary.
Feel free to laugh, as Gordon Bass says, “when you hear a joke or see a funny.” Don’t hoot and holler at inappropriate times, and don’t shout out one-liners at the stage. If you want to be the center of attention, put up your own play.
Don’t slouch and scowl at the actors; it’s not their fault your mother/father/teacher/youth minister brought you here.
Don’t go to sleep. If you're bored to the point of passing out, quietly leave.
Don’t take pictures; it’s illegal, and the flash is dangerous to the actors and distracting to the audience.
Bathe before the show. Don’t wear copious amounts of perfume. Don't eat six bean burritos before a performance of Hamlet.
I repeat: You are in a shared space. What you do affects the performance, and it affects the audience around you. None of these expectations are unreasonable.
2. Do your homework.
Going to see a Gilbert and Sullivan musical is a very different experience from going to see a two-actor Doctor Faustus. I don’t think you should necessarily read the play ahead of time, and I generally recommend against reading reviews before seeing the show, but you should know what kind of play you’re going to see. If you’re expecting a family-oriented happy-go-lucky comedy, you’re going to be very disappointed and confused when the curtain rises on Sam Shepard’s Buried Child.
3. Engage the work in front of you.
Assuming that the director, designers, actors and crew know their business, and they usually do, the company has created a piece of work that is designed for you to actively invest your attention, thoughts, and feelings into. I promise you, it’s far more rewarding to engage a play as an audience member than it is to sit and just let it happen in front of you.
What does that mean? It means that your heart and mind have work to do when you go to the theatre (or when you go to the movies, or listen to music, or go to a gallery, etc.). A comedy is designed to elicit joy and delight from the audience, and a tragedy to entice fear and sadness. You will experience much more as an audience member if you decide to let the piece move you than if you sit back and just wait for it to grab you. This is perhaps the most important part of being an audience, and the hardest to quantify. Yes, there are moments that will reach out and grab the casual viewer; Othello choking the life out of his innocent bride should make the remotest heart crack. But if you, as audience, have already gone halfway, if you have decided that you want the art to move you, you will not only have your heart completely and deliciously shattered by the heights of tragedy, you will also be moved by the smaller, subtler moments that a good playwright and company sprinkle throughout. It is often the little bits that bring the greatest reward, but the audience has to work a bit to receive them. It’s work worth doing.
Going to the other extreme, if you go to a comedy wanting to be delighted, you’ll find the experience much more satisfying than if you sit back and wait for the jokes to force your joy. Actors in town tell me that they always know I’m in the audience because I laugh loud and often. I’m not faking it; I want to be delighted. If you ever get a chance to go to a play with Theatre VCU’s Gary Hopper, watch him watch the play. He leans forward, forearms on his knees, transfixed by the experience. I’m told I do likewise. Actively engage yourself in the play being performed for you and you will reap rewards much greater than if you just sit and demand entertainment.
4. Give some benefit of doubt.
There’s some really crappy work done in theatre, as in all arts. There’s sloppy work, there are vague choices, there’s potboiler money-grasping, and there’s just plain bad art. But sometimes, quite often in fact, theatre artists make complex and subtle choices that are designed to be demanding to the audience.
For my part, every play that I write or direct, and the overwhelming majority of Richmond Shakespeare’s work, is designed to function on multiple levels. There’s the surface level, the “delight” layer, where spectacle, jokes, and broad choices reside. These are the big “event” moments, the pie-in-the-face, the witty turn of phrase, the sword fight, the show-stopping musical number, the murder of the king, the penis joke, the famous speech, the lovers’ first dance. But there’s a layer underneath of a much more complex, challenging nature. It’s the layer where symbolism, deep meaning, concept, motif, and theme reside, and engaging that layer is much more rewarding than simply allowing the surface stuff to wash over you.
Doctor Faustus, for example, was loaded with gadgets, gimmicks, and gimmes: the summoning machine made of Mega-Bloks and Christmas lights, the G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, the Styrofoam head of “Helen,” the stuffed animals, masks, and props. But I hope the audience paid some attention to the cheap, tawdry nature of all these devices, valueless and obvious to anyone but John Faustus. I hope they noticed the pile of used-up contracts next to the wall, indicative that this has been going on over and over for years. All these devices were delightful to the audience on their surface, but they were chosen to point toward deeper meaning: the extent to which we value meaningless stuff when we turn our backs on God and live for our own aggrandizement. Hopefully, the deep parts of Faustus were rewarding to the audience member open to receive them, while the surface “delight” layer was strong enough to engage the casual theatergoer (though how many people decide casually to go see Doctor Faustus is debatable).
If it’s the job of the audience to dig into the deeper parts of a performance, it is of course also the job of theatre to have something for the more casual viewer. Shakespeare, above all writers, knew this, beginning every play with events or promises of sex, violence, or the supernatural and never letting the grimness go too long without a gravedigger or doorman to lighten things up. After all, Shakespeare’s audience spanned the entire social and economic spectrum of the Elizabethan world, from the poorest and most ignorant to the richest and most educated. He never saw a deep issue he could resist; nor could he hold off on the puns and penis jokes. Somehow, he managed to be the favorite playwright of every level of society (save the Puritans, who just hated theatre in general), and remains the most produced playwright in the world 400 years after his death. It's not because English teachers decided Shakespeare is good for your soul, it's because the plays are damn fun to see.
For my part, I go to the theatre assuming that the artists who create the piece before me have something to say and have chosen means they thought best to say it. I may not always get it the way they intended it. But when I see something onstage that I don’t like or don’t understand, I invest some effort into trying to determine why that choice was made. There is, of course, a danger of becoming a critical polyanna, of justifying bad, vague, or confusing work by saying, “the director was making a bold choice that I, through some fault of my own reception, didn’t ‘get’.” But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the audience to give artists a certain level of benefit of doubt. I always do, and I find that I leave the theatre more satisfied more often than almost anyone I know.
5. Don’t be a hater.
On the flipside, there is a very strong tendency among theatre artists to be hypercritical of other artists’ work. It’s like the old joke: How many actors does it take to screw in a light bulb? One hundred: One to actually do it and 99 to talk about how they could have done it better. This particular item applies mostly to other theatre artists, and it's a common pitfall for critics, but there are also theatergoers (and moviegoers, concertgoers, etc.) who seem to believe that the only way to intelligently approach a performance is to tear it apart. I find that insulting, disgusting, and totally counterproductive. I have a lot of friends with whom I have just stopped discussing theatre because they never have anything good to say about anyone or anything.
Hating everything does not make you deep, and it doesn’t make you intelligent. It just makes you hateful. Theatre is designed to entertain, and if you want to be entertained you usually will. If you want to find fault, you always will. Expectations #4 and #5 are often linked; if you make an effort to discern and accept what the artists are trying to do, you will often find yourself being affected by it in the way they intended.
That doesn’t mean calling bad work good, or justifying weak choices. And I’ll freely admit that I tend to excuse more than I find fault. That’s how I roll; it’s in my character and in my Faith. But I promise you that I enjoy more theatre than the player-haters do, and I’m probably a much happier person. Find the joy. Choose to be delighted.
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In my work as an artist, I find it of prime importance to leave “space.” I leave space in the plays I write for actors to fill by leaving some lines and intentions ambiguous; the actor then has a chance to come up with better ideas than I could. I leave space in the rehearsal hall as a director by allowing the actors to explore and experiment before I solidify blocking, and often afterward; the actors again have a chance to improve on my ideas. I leave conceptual spaces in the final directed product (and, to an extent in my final acted product) for the audience to fill in the blanks of meaning, hopefully allowing each audience member to take some personal ownership in the theatrical event. I more than allow the audience to engage the work, I demand it. The whole work is built around it.
If it’s reasonable to allow the audience to challenge the actor, it is reasonable for the actor to challenge the audience. This is what makes the theatre so much more vital than film or television: the actual presence of performance and reception in the same space; making eye contact, engaging each other, and demanding response. You cannot come to the theatre expecting to be able to tune out and relax the same way you come to the screen. The form doesn’t allow for it; theatre doesn’t work on a passive audience the same way screen performance can.
There’s a lot of theatre out there that just doesn’t give a damn about the audience. Many “laboratory” theatres (of which I confess to have participated in) are more interested in artistic experimentation than building a piece for audience reception. I generally think of a laboratory as a place for Bunsen burners and test tubes, not art. Much of American Shakespeare seems designed to manipulate 400-year-old texts to serve current socio-political agendas, which I suppose is artistically valid, but often comes off as only appealing to white liberal 40somethings with household incomes above $150,000. And the second acts of many Sondheim musicals seem more focused on demonstrating how smart Sondheim is than entertaining anyone. Wait, that's not quite fair. He's demonstrating how smart theatre artists are, not just himself. (Okay, okay, refrain from the angry responses, I like Sondheim. He's just a reeeeeally easy target.)
I promise you, I’m making this theatre for you. Everything I do is with the audience in mind. It’s designed to delight and challenge you, to elicit thought and feeling and, at the end of the night, joy. Question my work, interrogate it, demand things of it, and do the same of your response to it. Respond! Come and get it! Don’t wait for it to grab you, meet me in the middle. Be a part of the theatre, and allow the theatre to be a part of you.
If theatre is a 50/50 paradigm, then you in the audience have some work to do. It is work very much worth doing.