A friend of mine once told me a story about having seen Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman two different times: one time the audience laughed throughout the play, the other time they cried. Obviously the directors of these two productions had very different interpretations of the same text, and therefore the elements of the shows were understandably disparate, but that does not completely account for the two reactions. As audience members, we understand that a show can move us to these emotions, and I personally go in hoping to be moved. However, as someone who has been both on stage and off, I think that most audience members underestimate their power on the performance.
Scholars have been talking about "spectatorship" for years, but for people who go to the theatre recreationally there seems to be less awareness of the give and take between the audience and the performers. I do not mean this as a blanket statement or a value judgment. I simply find that certain actions point out this disconnect to me.
Let us take, for example, the business of checking your cell phone during the performance. Yes, the action can be silent, but the idea that the performers cannot see you from stage is preposterous. They can see the light from the phone. It illuminates your face. Not only is this action rude, as it stands out in a dark theatre and tells you as an actor that you are boring someone, but it is incredibly distracting.
This action reveals a particular kind of attitude towards seeing theatre: that you are there to see the actors, but the actors should actively ignore signs that you are in the audience.
This is particularly atrocious on Broadway. The other night I was seeing Wicked, a show I haven't seen since Idina Menzel was Elphaba, and I was shocked at how the audience comported itself. The two individuals behind me were in a constant running commentary about what was happening, which also serves to show that some people ignore the fact that there are other audience members watching a performance. Then someone took a flash picture in the middle of one of the scenes, which is dangerous in a show with so many moving parts. If you momentarily blind or distract someone moving a several ton piece of set, someone could really get hurt.
I won't waste any more time ranting about people who are disrespectful, because I have had just as many experiences where an audience can be so supportive and generous to the actors that I believe the show became better because of this. I often find this is the case at Dixon Place. I have seen some fantastic work there, but I know I would not have liked the shows as much if the audience had not been so open to laughter, interaction, and the unusual.
Last night I went to LaMama to see Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, a late Tennessee Williams play. At one moment, the manager came out into the audience and sat on a man's lap. The man then put his arms around the manager to caress him, at which point the rest of the audience laughed in appreciation. And it was appreciation; for this man had proven to both the actor and us that the performance was enjoyable enough to merit interaction. By modeling openness and acceptance of the material, this man gave any hesitant audience members that might have remained permission to enjoy.
We humans mirror each other and read each other more than other animals. In fact "monkey see, monkey do" is actually more applicable to us than to our primate friends. This is what we forget when we sit side by side in an audience. All of a sudden we believe that we can have a private viewing experience while sitting in a group of people, yet we know when it is alright to laugh or cry based on what the people around us are doing. I have been to funny shows where I have not laughed out loud because no one else seemed to be doing so, or where I have laughed and been the only one.
Just as the actors can tell when you are checking your phone, a good actor can likewise tell when an audience is with them. This has a tremendous effect on the performance as a whole, and though it can result in "hamming it up," which I am not trying to encourage, it can also make give a performance that little something extra. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: we have responsibilities as audience members that should be taken as seriously as the actors' responsibilities to us.