The American Shakespeare Center's Department of Education interns explore the many facets of ASC and life in Staunton. This blog showcases their work with us, as well as linking that work to their studies and explorations at school and abroad in the wider world.
Thursday, January 17, 2013
“I liked hugeously the actors. They are the goodliest, properest men” [and women].
As I jotted down a few thoughts in my notebook while watching the lovely group of actors rehearse for their production of The Country Wife, I was caught off guard when I looked up and noticed actor Ben Curns, playing Horner, saying his lines to me. Feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed, I smiled shyly back. I don’t believe I looked at my notebook for at least another hour into rehearsal, waiting to see if another actor would throw another line in my direction. As I observed the rest of rehearsal, I realized that the abundance of asides provided the actors a plethora of opportunities to interact and connect with the audience -- to pull them into the world of the play.
It’s interesting to watch how uncomfortable an audience member can become when actors interact with them. Even though I’m an actress myself, just making eye contact was enough to make my face red. Why? Frankly, it is just something that doesn’t occur frequently. When you sit in a theatre today, more often than not you are expected to be quiet. Even the smallest sound will immediately send heads turning. Comparison between modern audiences and those of previous centuries show a large difference in behavior. In the late 1500s, it was a common practice for actors to interact and for the audience to respond. They would cheer, they would riot. No matter what the circumstance, the actors had immediate feedback as to how the audience felt about a performance. “Spectators believed firmly in their rights and did not hesitate to exert their power to correct any grievance, actual or supposed” (Brockett). Shakespeare’s ability to respect and to embrace the audience’s power is one of the many reasons why he was so successful. He seems to have recognized the relationship between audience and actor and to have thrived in it, using it to his advantage, writing purposefully to “utilize the spectators so that they became, unwittingly, part-actors in the plays they observed” (Stern). Audiences today frequently forget about this relationship. Even when we don’t consciously and openly react to what’s occurring on stage, the audience still has power.
Recently I have been reading The Empty Space, written by English producer-director Peter Brook, who actually covers the connection between the actor and audience. He starts out by discussing the idea of “deadly theatre,” defining it as “something depressingly active, but for this very reason capable of change.” Deadly theatre is not dead, but there is a significant amount of room for improvement. We have all witnessed “deadly theatre” in some form. We can all remember that show that put us to sleep, or the one that made us wish over and over in our heads that it would just end already. We will claim that “the acting sucked” or “the show was horribly written” or just flat out “I didn’t understand what was going on.” However, Brook presents the point that the audience can be equally and, even more so, as responsible for what lacks in a production.
In order to prove his point, Brook highlights an experience he had while lecturing at a university. He had a volunteer come to the front of the class and simply gave him a speech to read out loud. As the volunteer prepared, the rest of the class chattered on. But when the audience detected a shift in the manner of the volunteer, that he had a higher level of concentration and seriousness, the audience fell silent. This was when Brook instructed him to read. The monologue was from Peter Weiss’s play The Investigation, which described the bodies of those within the gas chambers in Auschwitz. In an instant, the audience understood why he was behaving so differently. “It [the audience] became one with him, with the speech the lecture room and the volunteer...vanished from sight...” and the content of the text took over. This is yet another example of the potential to enhance the theatrical experience by addressing this connection. When there is a lack of love, openness, and attention from an audience during a performance, the quality of the acting has the potential to diminish. But because, in this situation, the audience wanted to hear, the volunteer was able to share the experience effectively, and therefore the experience was not deadly at all.
Although there will always be “deadly theatre,” one thing for certain is that this connection between actor and audience exists, which is a quality of theatre that provides a unique and rewarding experience that you can’t find anywhere else.
- Rachel Z, the Aspiring Actress
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Atheneum, 1968. Print.
Rodenburg, Patsy. Presence: How to Use Positive Energy for Success in Every Situation. London:
Penguin, 2009. Print.
"Western theatre." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition.