Engaging the audience


Financial Times 1993

Michael Arditti on why the audience’s role is crucial to both actor and playwright

Should you ever visit an actor after a performance, don’t be surprised to find your compliments reciprocated.  While at first this may seem theatrical gush – after all you’ve been sitting still whilst he’s been sweating Shakespeare – if you’re keen enough to return on a later,  less successful night, you may better appreciate what he means.

For  the  audience’s  role  is  crucial,  as  Oscar  Wilde acknowledged when, on the first night of Lady Windermere’s Fan, he congratulated the audience ‘on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.’   Such curtain speeches may be a thing of the past, but the old maxim that plays are not written but rewritten holds true.  And as many contemporary playwrights have found, from Simon Gray to Peter Shaffer, the audience is the their final collaborator.

So although we can hardly claim royalties, it’s clear that we have a validating role over and above the routine dispensation of applause.  Michael Frayn is another to have learnt from this collective wisdom when the six week run at the Lyric Hammersmith prompted the changes which ensured Noises Off a four year life in  the West  End.    Ironically the reverse occurred with its companion piece,  Look Look, set across the footlights in an audience, when the actual audience stayed away in droves.

Look Look’s demise sent shock-waves through theatreland, but the subsequent spate of West End obituaries proved premature.  For not even a playwright of Mr Frayn’ s distinction could be expected to mould the disparate characters who composed his typical audience – the family party, adulterous couple, elderly gay and middle-aged mother and daughter – into a cohesive whole.  But if his attempt was an honourable failure, it’s one most managers and directors fail even to make.

It may be a fatal omission.  So much of the energy of our post-war theatrical expansion has gone into re-defining the bond between actor and audience:  reshaping auditoria to replace the outmoded social and aesthetic relationships of the proscenium arch, that little has been left for the equally pressing task of establishing bonds within audiences themselves.

When managements do consider audiences, it’s generally in terms of attendances… if bums are on seats, the more elevated organs can take care of themselves.   Thus the arrival of the mega-musical becomes a cause for celebration;   even though it raises  the  theatrical  stakes  at  the  expense  of  genuine engagement.   Audiences become mere applause fodder – cogs in these grandiose machines.

Increasingly,  managements, large and small, play the TV card.  Everything is done to make audiences feel at home.  The frisson of theatre is reduced to the reassurance of the small screen, as familiar faces are promoted – albeit in unfamiliar guise.   This can have obvious benefits, as even the pioneering Bush theatre found when Kevin Whateley (‘TV’s Inspector Morse!’) recently appeared there, but more often it can backfire as with the irate couple who loudly left The Entertainer, complaining that Peter Bowles was playing Archie Rice and not Richard de Vere.

Of course it’s vital to attract a new audience.  Even the Haymarket had its stuffiness knocked out with the Dawn French fans in singlets and jeans rather than twin-sets and pearls.  And yet this can prove a mixed blessing.  The increased chattering, bleeping and even mobile phone calls in the stalls attest to an audience not so much at home in the theatre as behaving as if it were still at home.  Though so far we’ve been spared such sights as the Madonna fans who arrived halfway through her Broadway performance in Speed the Plow and at the end sat back and waited for it to begin again.

Such a  response negates both the power and purpose of theatre.    It’s  a  quintessentially communal  experience where dramas  are  played  out  on  the  public  stage  –  indeed  with Parliament itself becoming TV fodder, it may be the only one left.   And unless managements respect this role rather than trying to lure audiences with the spectacle of the cinema or lull them with the familiarity of TV, its uniqueness will be lost.

Similarly,  if the audience is to play its role in the theatre and the theatre in society, it can no longer remain the province of the privileged few.   For though it’s heartening to recall that more people go to the theatre each week than to professional  league  football,  and  there  are,  of  course, considerable  local  and  regional  differences, it  is  still a predominantly white middle-class activity.

This is a loss to all  concerned –  and even to those unconcerned;  for the wider the audience, the richer will be its response.   A disproportionate audience can grossly distort a performance, as anyone who watched a house full of yuppies turn Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money at the Wyndhams from a critique of City practice  into a celebration of its own excess, can confirm.

The experience of seeing a play about racism in a predominantly white audience can be still more disquieting.  When Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom played at the Cottesloe to rows of white faces,  the audience seemed to reinforce the segregated world of the play.  Whereas in the very different racial mix of the Theatre Royal Stratford East, black people laughing at racist lines in Tunde Ikoli’s Scrape off the Black, liberated their white neighbours to confront their own prejudice and fear.

But then the Theatre Royal consistently offers a model of successful audience engagement, as the citation for their recent Prudential award attests.  ‘Community theatre’, which should be a tautology, remains far too often an unrealised ideal;  and yet, at Stratford, it infuses every aspect of their work.   In this they uphold the tradition of their founder, Joan Littlewood, who on being questioned before a performance as to why she was scrubbing  the  foyer steps, tartly replied:  ‘I’m expecting company, aren’t you?’

In most theatres, audiences aren’t company but simply customers – which, in turn, prevents them from fully engaging with either one another or the stage – but, at Stratford, the diversity of the audience is matched by the strength of its response.   And, though I’d be the last to encourage patrons at the National to shout ‘Behind you’ to Hamlet as Claudius and Polonius hide in the arras or ‘Nice one, Lopakhin’ as the new owner of the Cherry Orchard announces his prize, the highly vocal Stratford audience reveals an energy and enthusiasm far too often ignored.

Audience engagement is by no means the same as audience participation.  After all, actors do weeks of exercises to bind them together, while the crash course of a three hour performance can leave an audience with a deep sense of distrust … I still have nightmares of a Bournemouth matinee where I was plucked protesting onto the stage to conga with a six foot four Carmen Miranda . .. Nevertheless if the audience is truly to play its part, becoming far more than the sum of its parts, it’s essential to harness that collective energy which remains the theatre’s unique aspect and most precious resource.