Are Audiences Lemmings or Thinking Lemmings?

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Noises Off

David Jays’ blog, Performance Monkey, paraphrased in a post yesterday a great anecdote that appears in a foreword by Lois Weaver, a member of Split Britches. The foreword is to a new book by Helen Broadwater called Theatre and Audience, and, writes Jays, it examines “how often critics, academics and practitioners describe audience reactions as monolithic” and “why theatrical theorists often regard the audience with ‘a complex mix of hope, frustration and disgust.'”

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This is why I think the anedcote in question is chuckle worthy and telling. Weaver brought Peggy Phelan (a feminist scholar who headed up New York University’s Performance Studies program back during the 1990s) to a production of David Hare’s The Secret Rapture. Phelan, Jays’ relates

“became exercised during the scene in which the heroine’s dangerously obsessive ex bursts in on her with a gun. The dynamic of the play was pointing to the passive heroine copping it, but when the ex-boyfriend dropped his weapon, Phelan’s infuriated cry through the polite afternoon atmosphere: ‘Pick up the gun and shoot the bastard!'”

Well, I do adore the idea that a theater scholar, of all individuals, and either out of disgust, impatience, impertinence or boredom, should become so harnessed by emotion as to engage in such an outburst. After all, if Toothless Timmy from Tuscaloosa were to do such a thing at, say, a Broadway play, that chatterati on TalkinBroadway.com would no doubt be all over it, and if such an explosion were to take place at, oh, I don’t know, a musical starring Patti LuPone, the unfortunate patron would be assassinated by Uzi-bearing show queens at intermission. (Side note: At the closing performance of Gypsy, some of y’all may remember reading gossip about a person who yelled out “You’re a national treasure!” as LuPone sang her final Rose’s Turn. The person happened to be my ex, one of my very dearest friends, and if any of you say anything bad about him, I’ll have to hurt you. He was overcome with emotion.)

So, like Jays and like Broadwater, I am equally fascinated by the paradox at hand: how an audience experiences a performance in common manner — as eyewitnesses to the same blocking, the same tones of speech, the same sneezes and wheezes and silences and gasps — yet can exit the theater and develop, almost instantaneously, an individual response to the experience that goes right across the map.

It seems to be there is ample reason for “critics, academics and practitioners” to characterize an audiences’ reactions as monolithic. And it seems to me there is room to explore the process by which exterior displays of monolithic behavior evolves into individualized views of the piece. Indeed, I have sat through my shows and laughed myself silly and then gone home and written a pan — and vice versa. At base, this is a matter of an old theoretical friend — “suspension of disbelief” — and the return of the rational mind when the blanket of performance, the smothering of disbelief, is lifted along with the house lights.

The final two graphs of Jays’ post offer an equally inspiring basis for discussion:

…any performer will tell you that audiences each have their own individual collective character. While on stage, they seem not to experience contradiction, but consensus….

It’s difficult to think and write about audiences in ways that don’t treat them as monoliths, or as passive, or as neatly-defined target groups. It’s a fascinating exercise – how do we describe spectators’ involvement and investment in performance in ways that respect their individuality but don’t become too separate to be meaningful? Are we – sorry, you – a flock of sheep or a chaotic convocation?

Rather than “convocation,” which I guess is a less cynical word, I have chosen the lemming as a metaphor for the headline of this post. One reason I have done so is because the issue here, I think, is not only theater from a purely experiential point of view but also how audiences choose to spend their dollars. Surely if we understood more about what subconscious emotions play a role in spending decisions, it would move the commercial theater, for example, far beyond the my-marketing-plan-is-better-than-your-marketing-plan ethos that makes that sector of the business so regularly disappointing in terms of artistic value.