Thursday, March 29, 2012

An audience talk-back

Meg Taintor of Whistler in the Dark Theatre asks:

When you enter our theatre as an audience member, what is it you are looking for?

I am looking for someone else’s story to occupy my mind fully for a time in a way where I don’t mind the occupation. I find that possible with many sorts of live performance, whether theater or dance or music or circus, though theater obviously tends toward a more structured narrative than other performance modes.

I am looking for my own story and the stories of those close to me to stop occupying my mind. Not because I am unhappy with those stories; I do not seek less theater when life is going well. But it’s why I hate a distracted or unattentive audience, and why I dislike the multitasking involved in having food or drinks during a performance. I want to forget about myself.

Ultimately, that tends to make audience interaction less successful for me than I want it to be. I’ve read more than I care to about the barrier created by the proscenium, but I like the comfort of being an anonymous audience member and the pretense that I am an observer of the theatrical performance rather than a necessary component of the experience. That comfortable pretense allows me to embrace my role properly, to laugh out loud, to clap enthusiastically, to gasp or startle or otherwise reflect back to the stage. Of course this is contradictory, but performance anxiety is precisely why I am on my side of the proscenium. I want the illusion of invisibility. The thrust stage and the myriad of seating arrangements employed in black box and non-theater spaces can work wonders, but primarily if the audience remains safely wrapped in relative darkness.

I want to see performers who are fully immersed in the performance, even when they aren’t in the spotlight.

I would love to find a unifying theme to what I want from the theater, but I enjoy farces and musicals and dramas, all for many different reasons.

Meg cites Simon Callow’s claim that performers should feel compassion towards the audience rather than love. While I wouldn’t want to see that compassion slide towards pity, I do appreciate a sense that the production has considered the needs of the audience to see and hear the performers and avoid serious physical discomfort. There are far deeper reasons to want compassion from the performers, of course—to ask the performers to help us as audience members to see their stories, not just their faces.

I want to be able to keep track of the characters, to follow their individual arcs, to have them be distinct from each other. And I want to care about at least some of them. The notion of compassion as an essential element of theater goes both ways. The characters on stage are generally strangers, and feeling compassion towards strangers can be a challenge in our hectic and too often hostile society. When theater allows us as audience members to feel compassion towards strangers, it restores part of our humanity. That may be a heavy burden to ask of the theater, but the wonder is in how often it succeeds.

No comments: