A meditation on what it means to be an audience member
A while back, at the opening of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Arena Stage, there was a reference, by George, Martha’s history professor husband, to something going back to the Punic Wars.
It was a caustic, satiric, reference, as I remember, and I laughed. So did a lot of other people in the audience. It made me feel good that so many people got the joke, knew what the Punic Wars might have been besides very old. On the other hand, I felt less smug about knowing it.
It’s a small thing but these things happen all the time. They are the juice, the blood, the Gatorade of performance; they make each time out, if not entirely brand new, potentially completely new.
That’s why plays, in the end, exist – for posterity and memory, but also for better or worse. Audiences will let you know in their own way which was which, better or worse, and usually don’t wait for the critics to tell them what’s what. The audience brings the visceral reaction, the template and temperature gauge to the proceedings, it brings electricity or dust, depending. It brings noise: audible sighs and gasps, laughter in the right and wrong places, it brings potential nuisance and heartache and heartbreak.
Imagine, if you can, plays without audiences.
Until the audience shows up, plays are essentially unfinished. Plays are words on paper, words meant to be spoken, but words on paper nevertheless. They have a separate existence as permanent, unchanging literature that keeps the Modern Library alive with the collected plays of Shakespeare, Shaw and O’Neill and the like.
Unlike novels, however, or short stories, or poems, which need never be read or spoken out loud to be validated as novels, short stories or poems, plays need to be shaped, need to be inhaled and memorized by actors, need to be choreographed, staged, imagined and re-imagined. In this, audiences have no part. The process of a play is the engagement of various artists—directors, designers, actors, combat coaches—with the work.
The playwright in a way disappears at this point. What the audience brings to the table is the last spark of bringing the play to life, because in spite of the lab work, the workshopping, the rehearsals, what happens on the first night of performance and after is the big kahoona, the great unknowable, the mystery about plays, the juice, the sacrament.
Performance is engagement with us, we the people, and it is the last confederacy, the last conspiracy, the last engagement between written word and someone else’s body and soul.
Things happen at a performance. When the curtain rises (okay, when the lights go up, given the absence of curtains in most theaters) it is a little like a Frankenstein moment of animation: “It lives”. And we in the darkness are a part of that act of animation. We are not puppet masters, we don’t make the actors speak a certain way, or go this way and that, or make the stage turn green or make Mary Poppins fly.
But the audience is the reason that they do all these things. They are presented gifts, really, tossed into the darkness with the very best effort, talent and hope.
Because things happen. Most of the time, the actors can’t see the audience, not really, but they know we’re out there in our seats, in the front rows, in the orchestra seats, way in the back, off to the side, slumped or sitting up straight, eager, skeptical, prepared to judge or be swept away. The game’s afoot.
When you take your seat, you are alone. Sometimes, the quality of a performance and the emotional power of the play can be judged by how that changes during the course of the evening or afternoon, whether you feel more isolated because the play has become deeply personal or, incomprehensibly, whether sparks fly.
In a play, we find each other in the dark. Those shared conceits and knowledge—some of us have been to the Punic Wars in a classroom—are like sparks that fly across a room. We all laugh at fart jokes, and are ruined by the death of Cordelia because she is the good daughter.
What we know can change a performance. The recent death of Elizabeth Taylor reminded me of seeing a performance of Private Lives at the Kennedy Center starring Liz and Richard Burton. Every line in that sharply witty and overly familiar play about a divorced couple had a double meaning as it applied to the actor’s celebrity: Amanda’s line “You know I’ve always been afraid of marriage” becomes an occasion for howling laughter when spoken by Taylor—and topped by Burton.
Things happen: history tells us that. I always love references to the “groundlings” at the Globe Theater, hooting and howling at their betters in the boxes and I recall Rohrschach Theater trying to recreate the effect by putting the seats above the stage, where you could dangle your feet, in a play called The Beard of Avon, the result being on one night that a pair of flip flops landed on the stage.
Things happen: history tells us there were riots at opera openings in the great theaters of Europe or over some new avant garde play, and you sometimes think you can hear the absinthe-fueled buzz (in French) about No Exit by Sartre or Caligula by Camus or outrage over anything by Genet.
In the long ago, people could react violently—the throwing of tomatoes, rocks, excrement and such were expressions of the investment of the audience and its importance. We have rules now, and expectations of civilized behavior, although it’s true that not even at the Kennedy Center do people dress up for a play, not excluding critics.
Audiences bring with them expectations and knowledge and barring that, jaded experience or a wish to be wowed, an embrace of the possibility of something unforgettable because of theater’s in-the-now memory building capability, even the unforgiveable hope that the ropes don’t work in Spiderman.
Watch what happens: people walk out. They walk out on naked men and women, they walk out when a man falls in love with a goat, or they walk out when they feel embarrassed because they have no clue what’s going on.
Watch what happens: your fellow audience members can be annoying especially in the age of digital cameras and iPhones, which are omnipresent. They will cough. They will be too tall sitting right in front of you. They will nudge each other, and whisper through the whole thing. They will be late, especially if they’re in the middle of the row, Murphy’s Law of Theater arrivals. They will fall asleep—on your shoulder. They will bob their heads, left, right and up and down. They will have a laugh on a line that was the reason you got a divorce from your second spouse. They will be impossible to please, like the couple who sat in front of me regally straight at the opening of Cats, the man saying to the woman that “turning animals into humans was simply deplorable”, she saying “you’re absolutely right, dear,” and me thinking I wanted to scratch their eyes out.
Watch what happens: I went to a middle-run, bad-weather performance of Synetic’s clown-and-mime silent version of King Lear recently and one man became very agitated right before lights out. “But will I recognize Shakespeare?” he kept asking. “Yes, you will,” they assured him. “But what about the words?” he kept asking. He looked profoundly confused, but hopeful.
I think audience members have a shared hunger. They really want to be there in the dark, knowing the lines but not knowing what will happen, it’s the classic human experience, knowing but not knowing. Audiences, I think, are not dwindling. They are in fact eager to be invited. Part of it is, of course, that somebody may forget a line, have a heart attack, be felled by a prop or show up drunk. It happens. Everywhere. Or the anticipation of a star being born, and stars have been born right here on stage, with us as witnesses to a delivery.
We look to each other as well as to the actors and the play. I remember several years back, when the two theater dynamo Michaels, Kahn of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Kaiser of the Kennedy Center joined forces to produce a six-month city-wide Shakespeare celebration. The opener was a reading – no costumes, scripts in hand – of Twelfth Night at the Concert Hall, which filled up in a flash, with a couple of thousand people waiting outside on television monitors. New York actors mixed with locals like David Sabin and Floyd King on stage, Edward Albee wandered in. There was something about it that seemed full of electricity and excitement, a we-band-of-brothers feeling in the audience. The actors felt it. Their words were like plums and fresh fruit, first-time-said, or so it seemed.
Big and small, these moments happen all the time, rolls of laughter coming over the stages, the thunderstruck breaking of hearts—they must haves been—at the end of Candide, Derek Jacoby dying perfectly as Cyrano. You can hear the sighs in the audience.
But we are alone, too. We are in common, but experience things differently. A woman sitting next to me at Virginia Woolf told me at intermission she was an actress, and had played Martha in a theater in upstate New York. She had taken off her flats, stretched out in the dark, and I wondered then what that must have been like for her, watching Martha, watching the actress playing Martha, watching herself.
Watch what happens: At a recent performance of Oedipus el Rey, a Latino ghetto riff on you know who, there was a scene in which mother and son, as the story goes, got together in very explicit, nude fashion. You could hear the silence descending during the scene and wonder at the impact, depending on where you were sitting. You could hear at least one person, probably more, hold their breath.
Going to the theater is a little like everything leading up to a marriage: we are courted, we have desires, we want fulfillment, we want Lear to say something, we are exhilarated, we are disappointed, we think of things we never thought of before, we cry or want to if no one is looking, we are inside of life itself.
Because things happen. Because we are the audience at a play.
Editor’s note: DC Theatre Scene is creating The Gary Lee Maker Award, which will honor one outstanding audience member each year.