Before we start talking about the audience and its role in theatre, there are some concepts and ideas we need to review first. We need to understand the nature of Theatre as an art form, and in fact, one of the Fine or Performing Arts.
Fine Arts / Performing Arts
According to the earliest definitions of the nature of human endeavors, the Fine Arts are those forms of artistic experience and creation that do not serve a utilitarian purpose. That is, they have, as their end purpose, the service of art, and not some other human need. Normally, these are considered to be the artistic pursuits of drawing, painting, sculpture, and other static artistic methods. However, it also consists of those artistic methods that are considered the Performing Arts. Those are theatre, dance, opera, and music.
One characteristic that all of the Performing Arts have in common is that they are not static. That means that unlike a painting or a piece of sculpture that never changes once it is finished, a work of Performance Art is never the same after its initial creation. Every performance is unique and even if performed by the same performers, using the same script, music score, or dance libretto, it will differ from performance to performance – sometimes in subtle ways and in sometimes in more significant ways. An interesting distinction can be made here between live theatre performance and that same performance captured on film or digital media. Once it is recorded, it becomes something other than a work of Performing Art. It remains a work of fine art, but since it does not change, it lacks that characteristic that would set it apart as a work of Performing Art.
In addition to this immediate movement in time – existing only in the moment of its creation and lacking persistence in time – all performing arts share some other characteristics. These include the involvement of interpretation of a text (or music score, or dance libretto) created by an author, playwright, composer, or choreographer. The creator of the source material is the originator of a message or idea that is to be communicated to the audience. However, unlike a book or other source that you might read on your own and interpret the meaning for yourself, in the performing arts, that source is interpreted by the performers and then communicated to the audience using the particular elements of the medium of artistic creation.
For the purposes of this course, we will examine the medium of Theatre as a Performing Art. In addition to the characteristics listed above that Theatre shares with all the other performing arts, it has several that are unique. These are the various elements that we will be discussing in this course throughout the semester.
The elements of theatre are the following:
Audience – a mandatory part of the theatrical experience – without an audience there is no theatre (no receiver of the communication – or more rightly, no shared communication), and it is not considered art without that shared communication
Performers – the actors who appear on stage giving life to the fictional characters written into the script – bringing to life the story and message of the script in a way that the audience can identify with the humanity of the story and share if the experience of the story
Script/text -this is the fundamental source of the message of the play which is interpreted by the team of creators and brought to life by the performers and through their actions the message is shared with the audience
Director – this is the one individual who is tasked with interpreting the message of the script and sharing that interpretation and vision through the rehearsal process and through coordinating with the technical designers to bring it to life in the performances before a live audience
Theatre space – this is the physical space in which the play is performed – often a space specifically designed for live theatre performances, but at times adapted from any number of possible locations – will always have a place for the performers and a place for the audience to observe the performance
Design elements – scenery, costumes, lighting, & sound – these are the non-human elements of creating the context for the performers to create the action of the play – creates the visual and audible world of the play for the audience to experience and imagine
Theatre is a Collaboration
It is also important to remember that Theatre is collaborative. That is, it takes a lot of people to put a play performance together. A general rule of thumb is that there are two to three people involved in a play for every performer who appears on the stage during a performance. All these people work together with the director and the performers to create the experience for the audience. Their purpose is to collaborate toward achieving the goals established by the director to bring the director’s interpretation of the message of the script to life, to be shared with the audience. If they do not collaborate effectively, the play won’t be successful.
Audience and Theatre
There are several things to consider when trying to understand the role of the audience in theatre. It has been mentioned previously that without an audience theatre would not be an art. It is entirely dependent upon the shared experience among the members of the audience and between the audience and the performers for its meaning and its purpose as an art form.
Every performance is unique. It’s organic – a thing alive, if you will. Since it is live, there is no pause button, and no repeat function. What happens live, exists and then moves on into the next moment. Every performance is a single shot at getting it right. If a play is seen on two successive nights using the same script, the same cast, on the same set, it will be different both nights. The cast may forget a line one night and remember it the next. A light cue or sound cue might be missed one night and be spot-on the next. The set usually is the same from night to night, but even there, differences can occur – a stuck door might happen one night, for example.
Another vital difference is that the audience will be different. Even if some people see the show for two successive nights, the rest of the audience will be different. Every audience member brings his or her own experience and understanding to what is happening. The shared experience will be different. The energy in the room will be different. A place that got a laugh one night might not get the same kind of laugh the next night – if at all. Audiences are different and they react differently. That unique element – the shared energy between the audience members and between them and the performers is one of those “magic” things of theatre.
A well-known critic in the 20th century, Walter Kerr, made this observation about this dynamic interaction between the audience and the performers:
It doesn’t just mean that we are in the personal presence of the performers. It means that they are in our presence, conscious of us, speaking to us, working for and with us until a circuit that is not mechanical becomes established between us, a circuit that is fluid, unpredictable, ever-changing in its impulses, crackling, intimate. Our presence, the way we respond, flows back to the performer and alters what he does, to some degree and sometimes astonishingly so, every single night. We are contenders, making the play and the evening and the emotion together. We are playmates, building a structure.1
This feedback loop, this interaction is what makes theatre special and unique. It is the “magic” that actors and others who have been participants in theatre often speak of. It is the thing that “grabs” audience members and often brings them back to the theatre time after time.
Since audience members are participants in this process of creation, how does that work? There are several concepts that can help us to better understand this participation.
First, the audience participates with the performance vicariously. That is, they are not actually going through the actions of the characters in the play, but by observing that action and attempting to understand that action, the audience can share the experience with the actors. This is similar to the concept of the “pageant mom” or “soccer parents.” Where the mother does not actually participate in the pageant, and the parents are not playing in the game, each spends a lot of time invested in the preparations for the event, and often tie their own emotions to the event “as if” they were experiencing it directly. This kind of emotional investment is what the audience member makes when he or she is participating in the action vicariously. Notice that this is not a physical participation, nor only an intellectual participation. It is an emotional participation. Another way to understand this idea is to think about how you “feel” about a movie. Have you ever cried when the events turned sad, or cheered when the hero wins over the bad guy? That’s the emotional reaction to vicarious participation.
Next, the audience makes a choice, when watching a play, to suspend their disbelief. What that means is that each member of the audience knows intellectually that he or she is sitting in a chair in an auditorium or other venue, watching a play that is being performed by actors who are not really the characters they are portraying. So, as a rational and thinking individual, the audience member knows that what is happening on stage is NOT real. However, in order to join into the emotional experience of the performance, the audience member chooses to disregard the awareness that what he or she is watching is not real and instead chooses to assign a reality to the observed actions – and react “as if” they are real. This act of choosing to ignore the “reality” of the performance and to accept the “reality of the pretense” is what we call the willing suspension of disbelief.
Another concept to understand with regard to audience participation is aesthetic distance. This is not a measure of physical distance. In fact, some theaters will have considerable space between the performers and the audience members. Others will have virtually no physical distance between them. There may even be performance space involved in the audience area and right up to the seats of the front row. Aesthetic distance is not physical. Instead, it is the distance that the audience feels to be from the action and subject of the play. As humans, we are dual natured. We are thinking creatures, and we have the ability to look at things and think about things from a rational perspective. Often when we are just thinking about things, we don’t engage our other nature, our emotional nature, very deeply. As feeling creatures, we react to events and ideas around us. In fact, we often react quite noticeably, by crying or laughing for example, when we are engaged in something. Those two sides of our human nature are precisely what comes into play when we talk about aesthetic distance. When we think about something, we also usually feel about it. That is, we react. However, we can also think rationally about a subject and not react emotionally at all. And when we have powerful emotions, we sometimes don’t think at the same time! The degree of separation between our thinking selves and our emotional selves is what we call aesthetic distance. Some plays want the audience to focus on the ideas of the play, to think about what it is saying. However, most plays want to engage the audience emotionally as well as intellectually, so they will work in the script and in the production to try to reach out and engage the audience in a way to motivate an emotional reaction. The closer to purely intellectual engagement without emotional engagement is a very big emotional distance. Conversely, a purely emotional reaction without thinking about the message would be considered a very close aesthetic distance.
You can see as we explore the nature of audience participation in the performance, that a lot of it seems to be talking about an emotional connection. We can’t forget the intellectual component though. Both mental and emotional participation is necessary. Remember that a play is meant to be a conversation, a sharing of ideas about the message the playwright included in the script, as interpreted by the director. So, it is important to understand that the audience is expected to engage the play emotionally as well as intellectually. It goes beyond just sitting and watching a play for pure entertainment. The audience, in order to truly share the artistic experience of the performance, is expected to engage and think about what is being shared and to connect to the experience emotionally.
Throughout history, the make-up of audiences has changed somewhat. Originally, they were fairly evenly made up of all classes and genders. In Ancient Greece, since plays grew out of regular religious festivals, which everybody attended, the plays then drew the population of entire cities as the audience. This continued into ancient Rome, though there was greater competition for the entertainment of the populace, so theatre was slightly less of a draw. Still, it was not unusual for nearly entire towns to make their way to the theatre to watch a play – especially in the areas of the empire outside of Rome itself.
In the Middle Ages, theatre began as a religious event, once again. However, its appeal was such that it very quickly moved beyond the churches’ influence, and once less controlled by the clergy, it continued to be a popular entertainment venue. Attending plays became a highlight. It was a way to escape the drudgery of sun-up to sun-down labor. In fact, as we will see, most plays were an excuse for a party to break out, to include music, dancing, food, and often drinking. (Dionysus would be so proud!) Most playwrights of the time would write plays that had appeal for the upper classes as well as the lower, less-educated parts of society. Shakespeare (from near the end of the Middle Ages) is a great example of this. His plays have material for everyone in the audience – since nearly everyone was in the audiences.
By the middle of the 17th century, theatre had shifted its appeal. It became more of a business venture, and as a result tended to cater to those who had money. The wealthier classes made up the majority of the audiences, so playwrights began to write plays that looked at the wealthy upper classes and essentially ignored the lower classes.
This phenomenon did not last very long though. By the beginning of the 19th century the middle class had developed wealth enough to begin attending plays again, and the make-up of the audiences grew in diversity – at least in terms of class. As a result, plays began to expand their appeal again and included the full range of society since more and more of that society was attending plays.
By the 20th century, the growth of technology, and the wide variety of entertainment options that grew out of that technology, provided many more possible distractions to the potential audience. As a result, audiences shifted focus away from theatre to other entertainment options. This trend continues today with the explosion of technological entertainment available on-demand and in our hands. This is especially true as time constraints are imposed by our always faster paced lifestyle. Theatre I the 20th and early 21st century has become a luxury instead of the necessity it was in millennia past.
Make-up of modern audiences
Today, theatre audiences have the potential to be quite diverse. As we as a society find new ways to identify and differentiate ourselves, and as we have become much more mobile on a global scale our social make-up can include a variety of races, cultures, ethnicities, value systems, common experiences, and even gender identity. This mix of social differences all together in a local community means that theatre needs to expand to adapt to the possibilities of the audience. However, there is also a trend toward audiences that are more homogeneous, that is of similar make-up and values, etc. These extremes of potential audience, from widely diverse to homogenous, makes theatre owners and playwrights struggle to meet the potential demand of these audiences. If theatre is to reflect the humanity of the audience, there needs to be plays available that meet that potentially wide range of human experience.
Size of modern audiences
Modern audiences will usually vary in size depending on the available space available for seating in the space being used for the performance. As the popularity of theatre as an entertainment option has grown and declined over the years, different types and sizes of theater spaces have developed. Modern theatre spaces, and the sizes of their respective seating capacity are as follows:
Very large Broadway theatres – 500 – about 2000
Mid-size regional theatres – 500 – about 1000
Small formal theatres – 300 – about 750
Intimate theatres – 50 – about 200
Specialty playing spaces – varies based on space
Targeted audiences – highly variable, usually quite small
As a member of the audience at a play, there are some traits and actions that are expected for modern audiences. Look at p. 12 in Theatrical Worlds. There are several ideas that are listed about modern audience expectations. They boil down to this: enjoy the performance but respect the performers and the other audience members so they can enjoy it, too.
Arrive on time – plan on arriving several minutes before the announced curtain time (when the play will start) in order to find your seat and be ready for the beginning of the play – arriving late can be a disruption to others in the audience
Be attentive to what’s happening – do your best to listen to the lines and watch the action of the play so you can follow along and try to understand the message of the play
Remain relatively quiet, except when reacting to the play
i.e. don’t talk to fellow audience members during the action, this can be distracting to those around you, and in some cases to the performers on stage
don’t eat or drink (see exceptions below) and don’t open noisy wrappers or open bottles or cans during a performance
Don’t use electronic devices during a performance – turn off cell phones, the sound and light can be very distracting to those around you and to those on stage
Recording (audio & video) is prohibited by copyright law
Some variations exist
Dinner theatre usually has audience members finishing eating and often drinking during the performance
Some interactive plays will invite and encourage audience participation
Remember that the audience is an active participant in the play’s communication. Any distracting behavior will diminish the realism that is trying to be created by the actors and will also negatively impact the aesthetic distance of the performance.
As an audience member, you will develop opinions about the performance and about the play itself. That’s a natural result of thinking about what you are experiencing. How we approach our opinions will determine whether we are a critic or a reviewer. Both the critic and the reviewer watch theatre performances, analyze them, and comment on them. However, a reviewer is essentially basing the reaction to the play on personal preferences and opinion. When we tell someone, “Hey, I really liked that play. You should see it.” we are acting as a reviewer. Sharing our personal appreciations of the event with friends and others is how a reviewer expresses a reaction to the play. A critic, on the other hand, applies widely accepted standards to judge similar performances. Basically, a critic analyzes the play and measures it against the standards of what makes that kind of play and the production a good example of the genre. A critic attempts to address some basic questions about the play:
What is the production attempting to do?
How well is it done?
Is it worth doing?
The critic usually has a relatively broader experience with theatre and with understanding its values as an art form than the average audience member. It is that broader understanding which often informs the critic’s reactions to the play performance and makes the resulting analysis, shared in a public forum such as a newspaper or online set of remarks, a benchmark of quality. However, not all critics are neutral, and their personal biases, opinions, and values can impact the critical review.
In the final analysis, every audience member will have his or her own reaction to a theatre performance, and not everyone in the same audience will react in the same way.
Kerr, Walter, “We Call It ‘Live Theater,’ but is it?” New York Times, 2 Jan. 1972.↩