Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Actor-Audience Relationship

[For some reason this post is getting a lot of hits.  Please make comment so I know why or how you get here. Here is the third part of the How Theatre Changed Series. There are two more parts: An outtake on Realism in the Theatre and Theater as the Next.]

What is a theater experience? There must be actors and audience members:[i] someone doing/being; others watching/hearing. The audience is here to experience a life-like story being re-created. The audience is here to be entertained a word whose definition includes both to consider and to amuse. To be entertained is to be brought to consider something new or in a different way while being amused.

The essential relationship in this alchemy of theater is between the actor and the audience. It is very complex. On the outer fringes of this relationship it can swing from the audience being asked to become actors in the play to the audience being totally ignored by the actors.

I personally hate audience involvement, as an audience member I’m not looking to be put up on stage with the actors. Nor, as an actor, am I looking for an audience to throw rotten vegetables at the villain or to stop the action of the play. The audience is not a mob, or should become one.

On the other side, when the audience is completely ignored, even for the sake of making the world of the play more real, I start to wonder if the audience is necessary for the play to happen. It’s harder for me to believe that this action has anything to do with me. Also, I don’t feel engaged. I feel passive. As an actor, I either feel as if I’m being rude to audience by ignoring them or wonder who these weird voyeurs are in the middle of my crisis.

Prior to the 20th Century, the audience was a vital part of the creation of theatre. The actors spoke directly and connected with the audience. The theater spaces were designed to enhance this interaction. The relationship with the audience was often emphasized over the relationship between characters and actors.

By the 19th Century, the lead actors would often enter and plant themselves down center for the best communication with the audience. The supporting players were forced to turn their backs on the audience to play with the lead actors. The rise of fourth wall was in many ways a reaction to these excesses of “bad” acting in the 19th Century. The modern theater makers posited that in real life you talk to the person you are in conversation with and there is not an audience. Therefore, the reasonable way to make theatre is emulate that experience. That’s how we got to this current state of ignoring the audience. I wonder if they knew what they were giving up to become more “real”?

The Actor-Audience relationship that existed prior to the 20th century was one where:
·         the actor acknowledged the presence and importance of the audience in the process of playmaking
·         the actors spoke directly to the audience, and not just on the soliloquies and asides
·         the audience was included in the machinations of the plot and story
·         the audience was engaged in the argument and asked to consider the sides of the argument, even take sides
·         the response of the audience changed the performance of the play that day

As we work to create a theater for the 21st Century, we need to bring back a more complex actor-audience relationship. Besides making theatre more engaging, the benefits would help to better express what it is to live in our time. The advantages of a more complex actor-audience relationship would be:

Spontaneous Experience - Theatre is an experience of the moment. It can’t be fixed in a rehearsal room and slavishly repeated each performance and hope to have the same vitality as something that changes every time.[ii] The audience, when you let them, is the primary element that can change the action every night. How that happens is the actor and the production engages them, forms a relationship with them and invites them to participate in the creation of the experience. It just makes for more interesting theatre. It’s more fun. If that is not enough, it gives a unique encounter with one the chief characteristics of our Next: a different relationship with time. As we more fully understand the curving nature of time[iii], we begin to understand the vitality of the experience of the moment. Time changes when the actors and the audience are engaged in the moment. We appreciate the alchemy of the time of the play in relationship to the time of the theatre. We are in both times simultaneously and in a unique time all the same. We have an experience.

Engagement - Our entertainment experiences from recorded media have made us more passive as an audience. We are now used to sitting on our sofas. (Though I often yell at the TV, I know it won’t yell back). We begin to imagine that our entertainment exists outside of us. We are not part of it. Our theaters have made our experience of theatre more passive. The actors pretend we are not there. The seats are comfortable and reclining while we sit in the dark and participation is impolite. When we approach our entertainment passively, it is harder for us to be engaged, to have new thought, to feel. It is refreshing when we attend a live rock concert and the performers hear us screaming, when they make a better show because we are more fully engaged. Theatre can be like that. In the Elizabethan Theatre, half of the audience was standing and the other half (except Lord’s Boxes, their 1%) sat on hard backless benches which kept them connected and not passive. This energized their viscera in hearing and feeling. The actors played to and with the audience. It was a left, right and rear brain experience. They were engaged.

Community – The transition from the Medieval to the Modern has been a movement toward the sole individual and away from the collective. The Next will force us to deal with duality of our being both sole, unique individuals and being connected to everyone else. I am; we are. Being in a theatre where the actor is in relationship with the audience helps us to realize this dichotomy. There is an interesting paradox in playing to the audience. Common sense would tell you that the best way for the actor to include the entire audience would be to generally speak to all of them at once. It doesn’t work. When the actor talks directly to one specific audience member, then speaks to another, then the whole audience feels included. There is interplay between the individual and the community. The duality is expressed by being in the community and being aware of your individuality. Being in an audience that is engaged in the play and breathing with the actors is an experience of being in the community, in the collective. Only in community experiences do we get this.

As we work to create a theater for the 21st Century, we need to bring back a more complex actor-audience relationship. Besides making theatre more engaging, it will aid in expressing what it is to live in our time. The old ways of theatre will help to express our new way of being.

My Journey with the Actor Audience Relationship

By the time I got into theatre in the eighties, interaction with the audience was gone from the theater. Any movement towards direct address to the audience was considered ill form. Something about it didn’t make sense to me. Jon Jory, the great Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville who I learned so much from and I deeply respect, could not bear the actors addressing the audience directly, even when doing Shakespeare. It was interesting watching him figure out a good motivation for the actor playing Romeo to be speaking out loud to himself, rather than to the audience.

When I got to Shakespeare and Company, Tina Packer always spoke of the importance of the actor audience relationship. In production, the actors freely addressed the audience during soliloquies and asides, though rarely at other times. I always thought there could be more interaction.

Adele Cabot, my wife and partner, was invited to be one of the first International Acting Fellows at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, the modern re-construction of Shakespeare’s outdoor theater. When I visited Adele there, I joined a tour that led us onto the stage of the Globe from the upstage right door. The moment I walked onto the platform I said: “now I get it.” In that space there was no way for the actor not to be in relationship with audience at every moment. Everywhere he looked was audience, up, down, all around. I knew that this was essential to making not only Shakespeare, but all theatre.

When we were in Washington, DC, we ran a research lab to develop rehearsal and performance techniques. We called it the Whole Actor Research Project (WARP). When we came to Los Angeles, we briefly had a theater company called Waging Theater. We worked extensively with the actor audience relationship and spontaneity in performance. There was one evening that we were working on the Balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. The actors were coached to play more with the audience than the other character. This, of course, is a strange direction for the most romantic scene between two lovers in western literature. For a few minutes I experienced what the actor-audience relationship could be. When the actors engaged the audience, the scene became more about the argument of the scene in the same way a young person’s friends are involved in developing relationship, i.e., whether this is a good idea, does he really like you, can I trust her with my feelings. The scene became more. It also made it more romantic and sexier.

We tried to incorporate a more complex actor audience relationship in our production of Measure for Measure. It was too big a leap to make with the other new things we were trying,. It would take more training and attempts to get there. However, it taught me that if the leap could be made it would re-engage theatre experience.

My course changed after that. One day it will shift again. I’m looking forward to the next time I have to push actor-audience relationship boundary farther.

[i] I like that the folks in the audience are called “members”. They are part of the body that is the audience. Also, they are part of an elite group, part of the club. We few . . .

[ii] I worked as a Stage Manager in Regional Theaters during the early part of my career. Watching over 1000 performances, I learned that after the opening weekend, the productions usually settled in. The experience became less fresh and engaging. We would speak of “phoning it in.” Until closing night, the only things that would liven it up would be putting on an understudy, a mistake like someone losing a line, forgetting a prop or missing an entrance, or some emergency. Then, the theatre would become electric again. You talk to theater people and the stories are often about the night something went wrong. That’s when it was good. As a theatre artist, I wondered how to create a theater that was electric every night.

[iii] The past is no longer past; the future is no longer the future. Time is not linear. It is all happening at the same time. So, the present moment is all that is real. This makes the experience of the moment the only information that matters. Watching some past event or even a contemporary event that exists to be filmed for people who aren’t there is not a real experience of the moment. It is all about the now. Have an experience in this now.


  1. I was developing some Street-Theatre and looking for some debate about actor- audience relationship.

    I suspected both audience and players are needed to bring the characters to life. How fully can everyone participate in this, and how specifically is it done? Investigating this is how I found the article. I think its the crux of the matter, but a lot of articles about Drama seem strangely quiet about it. The historical perspective on the Globe is very exciting. Possibly before TV people expected to be much more active, like supporting sports teams today.

  2. Fantastic work guys I’m a die-heart fan of your web site.

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  3. hi, carey! just found this. fun to read, and i can hear you in it. this cracked me up: "...wonder who these weird voyeurs are in the middle of my crisis." hope you are well. laura fabian

  4. I am taking an intro theatre class at the University of Utah and we were asked to read this article:

    The writer argues that getting our entertainment from screens makes us passive. They argue that only in live theatre can we connect as humans through the mutual experience of seeing real live people. That live theatre creates a relationship between actor and audience. I did not agree with what he was saying in the article and so I wanted to do more research about the actor-audience relationship in theatre. Your article articulates perfectly my thoughts on the matter. The only difference is you are comparing theatre in the 19th century to theatre now. I argue that the authors sentiments on technology are the same as yours on theatre today. I was an interesting read! Thank you!

  5. If you ever choose to meet someone to know him better, make sure that you choose a perfect public place where there are people around you. Get the facts

  6. To answer the question "How did I get here?", I'm writing a term paper for my Philosophy of Aesthetics course at the University of Saskatchewan. I was looking for supporting evidence of the relationship between actors and the audience when I stumbled upon this article.
    I'm arguing against Walter Benjamin's criticisms of film actors since the basis of the argument is on the presence of a live audience.


Thank you for joining in the dialogue.