Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The final collaborators: the audience

I pity directors who cast me in theatrical productions. They drill actors not only to know and understand their lines, but also the script's subtext and their characters' motivations. Directors impress upon actors the importance of characterization, rhythm, body language, blocking, vocal tone and more. And they insist, insist, insist that actors stay focused on the action and other characters on stage during a performance.

Yeah. Good luck with that last part.

If you want to see actors excited about theatre, get them talking about not motivation or vocal tone, but audience reaction. There's a reason people who are involved with community theatre laugh at the scene in Christopher Guest's movie Waiting for Guffman when the actors go ga-ga over the presence of an audience member -- it's because they've experienced it firsthand in their own dressing rooms and green rooms. As much as actors pay attention to what they're doing onstage, they're also paying attention to what lines got the biggest laughs.

Actors cannot help but notice the audience, which is natural. Theatre is the most collaborative of art forms, with numerous people being involved in its creation: the writer, director, designers, actors, crew and more. If a production were a cross-section of a planet, you'd see layer upon layer of points of view and perspectives so varied and numerous that the "core" of the planet -- the script -- ends up looking completely different than the planet itself -- the final production. Those perspectives are topped off by the audience reaction, which influences the performers, no matter how much they try not to be influenced: a cough from Row D may distract; the eerie silence of people paying attention during a soliloquy may strengthen an actor's self-confience; a peal of laughter from the house right area may affect the tempo; and a not-fully-shielded cell phone conversation from Section A may annoy and enrage. And all of it is discussed in dressing rooms far from an audience's eyes and ears.

Does this happen with other art forms? Nope. Ishmael and Captain Ahab won't be fazed if a copy of Moby-Dick is set aside for a couple of minutes so someone can pay the pizza delivery guy. The scene in Van Gogh's Starry Night doesn't change if someone brings a crying baby into the gallery. As for the ballet and the symphony, an audience is expected to clap only at the very end of a dance or musical piece. The prima ballerina or concertmaster usually must wait until they're finished performing before the audience provides its input.

Do I enjoy looking at paintings? Yes. Do I enjoy reading novels? Yes. Do I enjoy attending performances by the ballet and symphony orchestra? Yes and yes. But knowing that the actors are giving me something to react to, and they will be affected by my reaction while they're performing gives theatre an extra "spark" of entertainment for me. It's life responding to life.


Steven Koehler said...

I think that one problem with theatre in our modern world is the approach that essentially ignores the audience.

You are right, what sets theatre apart (well on thing that does) is that it is different every night because of the affect the audience has on a performance.

This seems to be a modern problem, with the advent of "the method" style of performance, and the rise of TV and film. We are training our audiences to be more voyeur than participant, and that is bad for what we do.

Theatre as an art depends on the audience. Not just for the immediate feedback of laughter or applause, but because they are an active, a vital participant in the creation of the art.

Lis said...

Oh my gosh...I love Waiting for Guffman so much lol.

And I have to say that the audience IS the best part of being onstage. You can get a show rehearsed to as near to perfect as it's going to get and be proud of yourselves, but that is nothing compared to the first time you show that performance to an audience, and hear their reactions, and know that tomorrow night is going to be completely different because a totally new group of people will be watching. Even sitting in the audience I feel a sense of participation and an urge to play my laugh out loud, to clap and cheer in the middle of a fantastic dance number, to "ooh" and "ahh" over the sets, costumes, and special effects. Whether you're onstage or in the house, theatre is a very rewarding experience.

Steve Martin said...

Lis, you bring up an excellent point when you describe your enjoyment of being an audience member and expressing your feelings during a show. What I found very interesting is that you wrote about responding to musicals -- cheering a terrific dance number, especially.

When Disney's High School Musical played at the Tippecanoe County Amphitheater as last summer's Civic Under the Stars show, I know there were a lot of audience members reacting to what they saw and heard onstage. I wonder audience who attend musicals, rather than so-called "straight" plays, feel they've been given a license to react and respond to what they see and hear? Could you share an experience in which an audience's reaction affected you as a performer, for better or worse?

Audiences seem to have as much of an effect on comedies, too. I think my theory will be put to the test as Civic will be producing 3 classic comedies and two musicals over the remainder of the season. The comedies are "The Man Who Came to Dinner," "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "Private Lives." The musicals are "Children of Eden" and "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fair(l)y (Stoopid) Tales."

Lis said...

Hmmm. Ok. Well, I thought about this and realized that I've seen a lot more musicals than straight plays! But of the plays I've seen, I think it makes a big difference what the tone of the play is as to how much the audience feels the need to show their reaction.

For example, once I saw "Rumors," a hilarious play with several twists and turns, and the audience was captivated both by the hilarious characters and the constant suspense. After Lenny tells his long-winded story to the police, everyone gave him and ovation.

But in plays like "The Buried Child" and "Living Out," some moments are so realistically painful that as an audience member, you feel a little uncomfortable. You don't make a sound. And in those cases, maybe the total silence and rapt attention of the audience is the biggest signal to the performers that they're delivering the material successfully.

As for personal experiences, I've never been in a straight play - only musicals, so I can't add anything to that side of the discussion. But I will say that laughter always makes a big impact on me as a performer. In High School Musical, it was my first time playing a funny character. I don't see myself as a naturally funny person, so I was very nervous about being able to get the jokes to come across. I remember one night during a scene between me and another character, the audience seemed really into it and gave us a lot of laughs. That affected the energy, pacing, and chemistry of the scene, and also was re-assuring to me personally as a performer.

Steve Martin said...


Terrific examples, including how silence can convey an audience's investment in a production. I've experienced that once during "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

It was a nighttime scene during which Chief Bromden shares part of his life story with McMurphy. And during that scene, I could "feel" people listen to me. And it resonated just how moving Chief's story really was.