The role of the audience seems to be straightforward: to watch. Perhaps to think. Sometimes to talk about the show. But it seems that the question of what the role of the audience in a performance is, sounds weird — even uncalled for. Yet, it is the most essential question each production should ask itself and be able to answer. How should the audience interact with what they see? At the end of the day, the audience is the show, as without the audience, there would be no theater. So there is an even plane: On one side there is the performance, involving the actors, writer, director and staff; on the other, there is the audience.
Still, the most essential question is thought to be irrelevant because we assume the audience to be a monolithic, never-changing mass — one that always exists in the same constituency across every production — that is a mistake. Nothing is transfixed in life. So I beg the question: What is the role of the audience?
Coming from the Latin audentia, a hearing or listening, the word “audience,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, denotes the action or scope of hearing. From this definition, we get the sense that to be an audience involves active participation in the spectacle. This is indicated by the gerunds hearing and listening, which are continuous actions. Thus, we already get the sense that our contemporary connotation of the audience as passive spectators does not capture the full relationship between the audience and the spectacle.
Once again, Peter Brook, writing in his “The Empty Space,” elegantly captures that active element which the audience is. Brook contrasts the way in which the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear” is performed in Budapest and Moscow versus in the United States. Brook recounts how although the audiences in Eastern Europe could barely follow the English production, the performances there were exponentially more successful than the performances in front of an English-speaking audience.
Brook postulates that the reason behind the production’s success in Europe boils down to the audience’s intention in watching the play. Brook assigns to the European audience “a love for the play, real hunger for a contact with foreigners and, above all, an experience of life in Europe in the last years that enabled [it] to come directly to the play’s painful themes.” On the other hand, Brook describes the American audience as coming for “all the conventional reasons — because it was a social event.”
Although both audiences were seated in silence, in the dark, in their respective theaters the air they exhaled was different. In Europe, it was filled with anticipation and excitement. In the USA, it was filled with exhaustion. This same air was inhaled by the actors, who felt their audience’s presence even through the blinding darkness. It was enough to sabotage or elevate a play. This two-way street between the actors and the audience suggests a co-dependent relationship. One cannot thrive without the enlistment of the other. And as much as the audience came to see the actors, the actors also came to see the audience.
This leads me to a conclusion: the play is not about the people on the stage. It is about the audience. And so, contrary to the belief that a performance should touch each individual in the audience, I believe that the only way for a production to succeed is to touch the audience as a collective, as one entity. When a show manages to electrify the space, it is felt by everyone because a performance is not an individualistic experience. The audience is always plural, an emergent property of all the people who see the play.
But how can one affect such an abstract entity: an audience? And what does an audience mean if it is not anchored in the individuals sitting in the theater space? It is exactly here that theater becomes a sort of magic, an alchemy of people and spaces. When each person arrives at the location of the performance, they each agree to merge with their fellow spectators, to surrender to the surroundings — to become a crowd. I believe that is the reason for the specific shape of a stage: its lighting, its blending of observers and its assumption of anonymity. When one cannot see oneself, one becomes the many, and as such, there is a clearing for letting something in: theater.
There is a danger, however, that must be avoided, and that is the complete assimilation of the audience into the play. If we agree that a performance seeks to produce an active engagement with the audience rather than make the audience a passive spectator, then that means that the audience must not identify with the occurrences on the stage. That would halt the production of a collective audience, as some members of the audience would identify with one character over another, creating division in the being of the audience.
Thus, it is essential to keep the audience a collective — maintaining a distance between what is happening on stage and where the audience exists; in front of the stage, in the world. Only by existing in the world (and not in the temporary stage-world) can the audience import their experiences from the performance back into their reality and undergo self-transformation. The audience as an entity must first receive the powerful swells of the play and take in the seeds it plants. Only then does it disperse into the individual members of the audience, each of whom return to their own reality carrying the seeds of changes to undergo transformation.
The two major ways to handle an audience that I touch upon here are, the assimilation of individuals into a collective and the alienation of the collective from the individual spectacle. The roots of these ideas can be traced back to Aristotelian Theater and Brecht’s Epic Theater respectively. Although Brecht saw his theater in opposition to Aristotelian theater, I propose here a symbiosis between the two. I think that only keeping the audience alienated, as in Brecht’s approach, makes it difficult for the audience to feel and relate to the show. There must be a hook. On the other hand, it misses the transformative aim of theater to only absorb the audience into the show as a way of facilitating the cathartic discharge that allows the audience to return to their lives, satisfied and content to continue working the next day with the peace of mind that everything is fine. The audience must be able to relate to the situations presented on stage and at the same time be confronted with the necessity of making sense of what they see, taking stances in relation to the performance and the world it portrays, and coming back to reality after the performance and interpreting it through a critical lens.
In Independent Guerrilla Productions’ staging of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” we strove to hit this symbiosis between audience involvement and alienation. On the one hand, we allowed the audience to identify with the characters, only to repeatedly and abruptly remind them that what they were seeing was a construction of fictional reality. We did not allow the audience to sink into the trap of treating the performance as an illusionistic representation of reality. We highlighted again and again that the performance was fake, that the occasion we gathered for was artificially designed. We lured the audience into an immersive and comfortable participation in the world we created, only to collapse the illusion, to exile the audience from that world, so as to show them the bare infrastructure, the thin air they were walking on all along. Now, you might ask: how did we do that?
To invite the audience to assimilate into the world we constructed, we created a portal between ordinary reality and transcendent reality. Usually, this portal is the door into the theater house: the division between outside and inside. But we had a site-specific performance, as we staged it in the Engineering Quad’s amphitheater. Thus, our portal was the act of descending the steps of the amphitheater into a crater in the pavement; the audience would descend into the crevices of itself, leaving behind the turmoils on the surface.
Furthermore, we heightened the division between the sacred world of the performance and the outer, daily world by scattering waste between the seating arrangements in the amphitheater, designating the amphitheater as transported into an unknown wasteland. Lastly, the set was meticulously designed so that it would appear bleak with otherworldly poetics — some liminal space undergoing its own creation — still becoming. All these features invited the audience to forget about their mundane worries and to assimilate into a different reality.
Nonetheless, we did not want to allow the audience the escape from reality: from what is always around us. Hence, throughout the show, there was no attempt to disclose our surroundings nor encourage the audience to ignore it. People passed through the Engineering Quad during our performance; we took intermission between the first and second act, allowing people to return to the day’s reality.
We also implemented various mechanisms to remind the audience that they were seeing an artificially constructed world. For instance, we had various signs hanging on the tree in the middle of the stage. To construct the setting in Act 1, we had one sign read “A Country Road. A Tree. Evening” and another sign read “Pretend There Are No Leaves” since the tree in Act 1, as you might expect, is supposed to have no leaves on it. We also had our stage manager run onto the stage at the end of each act with a flag on which was written “Curtain.”
Lastly, we appealed to the technique of breaking the fourth wall. More than once during the show, we had our actors leave the delimited stage and join the audience by taking a seat amidst them or traversing the seats in the amphitheater as a way to break the imagined divide between stage and audience. And just to keep the audience alert, or perhaps even to tease it, we casted the role of the Boy (a minor part in “Waiting for Godot” who appears in two small bits of the play) by asking for a volunteer from the audience and prepping him backstage.
The volunteer was planted — but that was our secret. We left the audience to grapple with the surprise of casting the last role in our play a moment before we began the show. In a sense it was true, as our actress for the Boy had to leave our production due to copyright issues (to be elaborated elsewhere). The Boy was cast a week before the performance. At any rate, casting the Boy on-spot reminded the audience that everything was artificially constructed, similar to how the Boy just became part of the play, each and every one of them could have become part of it too. That is a blunt example of the “trick” our theater implemented. We pulled the audience in while we kept them at the door waiting for something to happen, and when it seemed that a climactic moment was finally arriving, the curtain was pulled to reveal nothing behind it. The audience was left empty, with nothing to grab onto; empty, required to ask itself what is it that they are watching: theater or life?