Theatre is nothing without an audience. So how can theatre best serve those who watch it? Pavlos Christodoulou enters the fray.
Theatre is similar to church these days. People dress up fancy, they go and take their seats, they’re quiet when they are told to be, respond as instructed to what is presented, and when all is done they leave and make small chat about what happened, going home and feeling good for having fulfilled their spiritual/cultural duty. In both contexts this is a failure, and in theatre this is as much the fault of the theatre-makers as it is the audience. We (as theatre-makers) are responsible for ensuring the audience don’t do this.
If your art is complete before the audience walks in, you have failed. Polemic as this statement is, I believe that it is misguided in theatre to think that a performance is complete without an audience present. This idea is embedded in theatrical language: we ‘show’ an audience a piece of theatre, we perform for them in a way that implies we do our thing, and they are witness to it.
Theatre, more so than any other art form, needs audience – it takes two to tango. And in theatre, it (paradoxically) takes two to soliloquise. We often just make work to some internal standard, and when we think it is polished enough to be worth whatever the price of tickets are, we put it on a stage. People pat us on the back and say ‘that was so good’, ‘great performance’ and ‘I can’t believe you managed to learn all those lines’. We either go home feeling like we did a good job or frustrated that people didn’t get the deep thematic and emotional ideas that had been so essential in the rehearsal room. The audience go home and, well see above.
“Not only is an audience reaction able to directly affect a show, but this reaction and response is a vital part of the artwork itself.”
Theatre doesn’t have to be life changing (although it can be), but this neglectful disparity between performance and audience is almost absurd. There is no valid sense in which theatre can exist and realise its aesthetic value whilst ignoring the existence of the audience. Theatre must be mindful of an audience, even if this means purposely alienating them. This is not to say that theatrical exploration and experimentation in theatrical laboratories serve no function, or that all theatrical endeavours necessarily must be geared towards a performance. The ability to adapt and inform the medium is no doubt valuable.
However, a theatrical performance is a conversation – there are two parties involved, and we all know how boring it is when someone only talks about themselves, laughing at their own jokes and using words that we don’t understand. Most theatre should be the part of the conversation where someone has started a story so captivating that we are hanging on their every word. Sometimes the conversation can be more explicitly two way, but this is not what I am proposing all theatre should do.
Theatre must be dangerous. In the cinema, we watch a horror film knowing that none of the things on the screen can affect us. In an art gallery, we know the paintings are bound to their frames. But in theatre, we are presented with living breathing bodies before us, and their drama is real, their struggle and pain can be real, they are tangible flesh and blood. Any moment they can turn on the audience, they can force them to face some reality or idea. Because there is someone there who can see you and respond to you the relationship is more living and exciting. The performers can see when you are not reacting as they expect. If someone falls asleep in the cinema the actors on the screen can’t know this. If someone yawns at a painting, the paint won’t be offended. This illustrates just a small part of a wider point about theatre: not only is an audience reaction able to directly affect a show, but this reaction and response is a vital part of the artwork itself. Furthermore, there is no categorically correct response to a play. We should not feel guilty or ashamed of our reactions, even when feeling bored. It is a legitimate response to what is going on in front of us and we (as theatre makers) must ask ourselves why the piece evokes said reaction.
Sitting on the Tube made me realise that the perversion of the relationship that should exist between audience and performer is paralleled in the relationship we hold with one another in life (in London at least). On the Tube, we all sit in such close proximity and yet we do all we can to pretend the others aren’t there. We are at once hyper-responsive to anything that anyone does, yet we do all we can to repress any reaction. Occasionally, something or someone breaks this gap and we all laugh or react with genuine surprise; these actions have a “theatricality” and that is exactly what theatre must aspire to create. Theatre’s role is to be this break where we all are forced to react and no longer just be bystanders. As horrific as this may seem to modern sensibilities, theatre can and should take this role.
I am not suggesting the audience all get on stage and play along with the performers. The question of what this relationship can (or indeed, must) be is no doubt tricky. Some shows sell themselves with ‘audience participation’. This involves the audience being treated much like a class of school children and asked a leading question, or volunteers being led through certain hoops on stage so they can feel like they were ‘part of it’. To my mind, this is a very contrived and patronising attempt at bridging the gap.
At heart what I want to get at (or rather, get rid of) is an attitude that exists for both audience and performer, where the other seems alien. The actor rates the merits of their performance in virtue of how they felt at any given moment, whether they were ‘there’, and how things felt for them ON the stage. These are of course important considerations and a truthful performance is vital. However as theatre-makers, we should care how the audience reacted, whether they understood and cared about what went on. If they didn’t, it isn’t to be automatically dismissed as a failure on their part to pay attention, or some intellectual lacking. Instead it should make us consider what the conversation we are trying to have is. If that conversation is not really getting off the ground because the audience aren’t engaged enough, then as creators we need to question why that is and what we can do to change that.
Featured image credit: The Latecomers by Albert Guillaume (Wikimedia Commons)
“Audience” image credit: ForumCinemas.lv