When he received the 2015 Gary Maker Audience Award, long time theatre supporter turned performer David S. Kessler encouraged a Folger audience: “Being in the audience is not a spectator sport.” To celebrate the start of the new theatre season, we asked David to expand on his thoughts.
Years ago, I served as a volunteer house manager at a local theater. I’d greet the patrons, collect the tickets, direct them to their seats. But my favorite part was when I’d get the word from the stage manager that all was ready, actors were in their places, board operators double-checked the lights and sound, pre-show music was fading, lights were dimming, and then I would shut the doors, sending the audience on their journey as I remained in the lobby. Off they went, ready to be transported by the magic on stage.
We all have jobs in the theater, roles to play, contributions to make to assure a successful theatrical experience.
What is the role of the audience? What are our responsibilities as we sit in that darkened theater? Are we passive spectators? Solitary observers, experiencing the activity on stage as lone individuals? Does our responsibility end after the applause and when we leave the theater?
Theater is a communal experience. The darkness gives us the illusion of being alone, the illusion that what is happening on stage is for you and you alone, that the experience is yours, and if there is a connection, it is between you and the people on stage, not between you and your fellow audience members. Watch a movie in a crowded theater. Then watch the same movie alone, in your own home. It’s not just the inanimate environment that’s changed. What you think, what you feel, has been altered by the presence or absence of humanity. You can have a profound experience both ways, and, in some cases, the solitude of the home may even be preferable to the distractions of a noisy movie audience. But theater is necessarily shared with others.
We’re in the dark, seemingly isolated, but we’re aware. The laughs, the sobs, the rhythm of breathing, the warmth of the bodies around us, even the restless coughs, and the (damn them) hums, beeps and glows of electronic devices inform our experience. Though we may be totally involved in the proceedings on stage, belief fully suspended, we can’t help but be aware of all that is around us.
It’s not necessary to consciously share; there’s no need to turn to those seated near you to nod, laugh, or wink, though that’s fine, as long as it’s not overly distracting. We know we’re in this together, we can feel it. A good play develops a communal rhythm, but we’re still individuals. The outlier, the individual who is the only one who laughs at a certain moment, the one person who gasps at something that is a surprise to no one else, reminds us that though we’re in the group, we are each of us unique. Don’t be afraid to be the only one who laughs. Performers often love to hear laughs.
When I was house managing, the director of the theater would often pace in the lobby during a performance. “Are they laughing?” he’d ask.
“It’s a drama,” I’d say.
“Yeah, but are they laughing?”
I never really understood his concern until I was on the other side of the stage performing a show that one critic admiringly referred to as a “tearjerker.” But there were plenty of laughs, and I craved them more than the tears or applause.
So go ahead and laugh if you find something funny. Hold that thought – laugh if you find something you believe is supposed to be funny, though try to stifle your giggles if you think it’s supposed to be serious.
Those on stage are well aware of you in the audience. They may or may not be able to see you, but they sure can hear you. Sound works both ways. If you can hear a whisper from the stage, the performers can hear your whispers. There’s nothing that can’t wait until the intermission or the end of the play. If it’s important, you’ll remember it.
An actor friend came on stage for the second act of a play, and, while she was trying to perform, overheard, quite distinctly, the following conversation in the front row.
“She’s taller than she was in the first act.”
“Nah, can’t be.”
“Look at her. She’s taller.”
“No, her coat is just shorter.”
“Why did she get a shorter coat? Doesn’t make sense.”
“So she’s taller?”
If you’re not part of the play, remember, you can be heard.
And the light on your devices can be seen. It’s distracting to the actors and your fellow audience members. It’s not just the noise. The light is awful. If you are so important that you need to stay connected, then you probably shouldn’t be in the theater that night. Come back another day.
You are an integral part of each performance. Your energy, your feelings, they fill the space and influence those on stage. Ask an actor about performances that begin between 6 and 7 in the evening. There’s almost always a weird vibe, even with a sold out crowd. People are not quite out of the work mode, not quite into entertainment territory, not quite sure of their evening meal. The audience may be appreciative, but the energy level is a trifle off. And that energy is what feeds the performance.
You know why actors sometimes applaud the audience at the end? Because you supply the power for the performance. I feel like a vampire at the end of each performance. I’ve been given a life force, and received much more than I’ve given. With great power comes great clichés, so use that power liberally. Send forth that energy any way you can.
And it doesn’t end with the show. If you see something, say something. Spread the word. Let your friends know about your experiences; actively work to get more butts in those seats. Share as much as you can. And seek out the actors, writers, directors, designers, stage managers, prop people, everyone, let them know what theater does for you. Let them know how you were moved, what you felt.
Being an audience may be defined as a spectator sport, but it’s not. Being an audience means being a participant. We’re all in this together. Play your role well.