Whenever I see theatre experimenting with form, setting and narrative, I wonder: Are we instead searching for new ways to interact with the audience? Perhaps the time has come for us to consider the performative qualities of audiences, which perform just as much as actors, singers, dancers or anyone else on stage.
In our society, the performance of the audience for traditional theatre shows has become incredibly concrete. We know, or we are supposed to know, exactly how to act, how to move, how to respond to others as they come down ever-smaller seat rows. The anti-phone pre-show announcement has become so obligatory and omnipresent that it is almost always presented with comedy and satire (and ignored). To be sure, a phone going off in the middle of a show can be a distraction, as can other audience members talking or getting up and moving during the most engrossing moments of Act II. Yet such disturbances have only relatively recently been filtered out of our experience — and even then only for performances of what we might call “traditional theatre.” At a Lady Gaga concert, by comparison, phone use is rampant, expected and even encouraged. Elizabethan theatres were notoriously rowdy. This partially explains why, in a Shakespeare script, the entire play’s action is discussed, played out, discussed again and in some cases played out with another set of similar characters and discussed a final time. If you’re only catching every other act, you’d need such repetition to follow the story.
Recently, I attended a drag show in Manhattan. To be honest, I often attend drag shows. I also occasionally perform in them, though I have taken a long-overdue hiatus. Merrie Cherry, the new queen of Brooklyn drag, cut her heels on the Monster’s basement performance space. The crowd at this West Village club was raunchy, drunk, loud, and people on their cell phones filled the air when Cherry appeared on the stage. While she spun and teetered, lip-syncing a very special version of “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift, the audience yelled and dollar bills were tossed. Some audience members, though engaged, also texted. Others used the facilities. I even witnessed one man perform a, er, tonsillectomy using nothing but his vigorous tongue. Despite this, I would not say that my experience was sullied — nor was there a sense that audience expectations were broken. On the contrary, for this kind of performance to be effective the audience must be loud, it must interact with the world at large via their mobile devices. Drag performance is about a larger-than-life personality, among other themes. For the performance to work, people must reach out to others and say “I’m watching Merrie Cherry and it’s amazing!”
Why is there a difference between the way an audience acts at a Broadway show and at a drag show? Why are some behaviors acceptable and others forbidden? That expectations for audience behavior differ from one performance style to another goes without saying. Nor am I attempting to compare apples and oranges. What I believe is worth examining are the performative expectations placed on an audience. These conventions are, too, a performance. Without words, without codified plot, they silently and powerfully shape our actions and experiences. Contrast the above set of audience expectations with the following.
While studying abroad in London, I had the opportunity to attend an orchestral concert. It was the most dignified event I had attended; I bought my first suit specifically for it. Every member of the audience was dressed impeccably, as though jeans and t-shirts were never invented. The other students and I ascended the stairs and took our seats quietly, and only discussed the performance to come in respectful whispers. When the orchestra came onstage the whole concert hall fell deathly silent. No change in lights, no announcement, nothing. Everyone simply knew what to do. They were guided by the performative expectations of an orchestra audience. When the headlining soloist appeared the thunderous roar of applause shattered this deathly silence. Yet no shouts, whistles or other types of ovations accompanied this applause. The roar was a respectful, restrained one. Following the performance, the audience rose to its feet and again applauded respectfully. Here, however, I made a miscalculation. Not knowing the audience script for an orchestra performance, I stopped applauding and sat down after what I considered was an appropriate amount of adoration. At a theatre performance, a standing ovation ends when the audience no longer feels the impulse to applaud. Here, the standing ovation continued for a staggering eight minutes. Only after every member of the orchestra left did the audience end its applause and sit back down. Outside the venue I was quickly rebuked for my failure to perform in line with the audience’s script. Our chaperone insisted that I must have known the conventions, as they were common sense. My actions were considered just as inappropriate as using a phone during a theatre show.
In all these scenarios audience performance is at least as important as those on stage. We often assume the audience’s script is indeed common sense. In truth, just like the actor’s performance, it is a creative choice that influences the effect of a piece. Popular musical concerts and cabaret performances create the expectation for a rowdy, loud, directly involved audience because that serves the show’s intent, just as traditional theatre has crafted a silent, respectful, observant scripts for its audience. By and large these audience “performances” do serve their intended purpose. However, we should remain mindful that they are subject to the same choices and challenges as any other element of a performance.
Should theatre reevaluate or at least consider how the audience is expected to perform? Concerts are incredibly popular, and streaming sites like Netflix have begun to dominate the areas of TV and Film. What would happen if traditional theatre could provide an experience in which expectations for the audience mirrored these platforms? As our culture changes so do our theatrical needs. For the Ancient Greeks, theatre was a form of spiritual and emotional purge; for Victorians it was a symbol of status and a tool for social dialogue. Shouldn’t we discover what theatre is used for in contemporary culture and adjust the performative expectations of the audience to match?