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Activating the Audience

How Directors Can Intentionally Craft Spectatorship

Across the many different kinds of theatrical work, the presence of a live audience is one of the few elements that remains constant. Historically, the positioning of the audience inside a performance has taken many forms. In Victorian-era melodrama, audiences determined the outcomes of plays by yelling and throwing food at the stage; in the less violent Commedia dell’arte, audiences gathered in their community spaces to watch groups of traveling players.  When it comes to contemporary theatre, many artists—working with historical precedents like these in mind—craft unique and engaged performer-spectator relationships in order to tell their stories.

There is another trend in theatre, though, that does not place the same conceptual emphasis on the relationship between the audience and the play. The majority of contemporary American theatre prioritizes, by and large, plausible narratives, true-to-life performances, and representations of topical discourses. This is an extension of a historical shift away from presentational, archetype-driven storytelling and toward detailed psychological portraits. The now-mainstream goal of creating sealed environments onstage—pressure cookers for interpersonal drama—places the audience outside the play in the role of analytical watchers. This theatrical paradigm, a self-sustaining onstage world opposing an audience in silent contemplation, is a hallmark of American realism. This audience positioning has become increasingly expected in contemporary theatre, so much so that it is viewed as an integral aspect of the genre.

The effect of this commonplaceness is that the decision to specify, curate, or attend to the audience’s experience has become an indicator of a play’s experimental, even genre-defying, nature. Unusual scenic, literary, or spatial choices might be met with praise or resistance; regardless, they are set apart as something different. This distinction between typical plays and work that engages audience is a disservice to the theatre. Regardless of genre, theatre artists must contemplate and make choices about the audience inside their work. This goes beyond pedagogy or preference: theatremakers have a political obligation to engage and focus the audience’s gaze. If spectatorship is not considered, if this artificial binary is left unchallenged, audiences are allowed to remain passive, both during and after the play.

actors onstage with a large shadowed projection above

The End of TV by Manual Cinema. Photo by Drew Dir.

Onstage Objectification and Modern Watching

To fully appreciate the stakes of the spectator’s gaze in performance, we must consider another condition of the form: theatre is objectifying. While the term “objectification” is often used to imply a reduced humanness or a stripping of agency, it is actually, at its simplest, the act of giving something meaning. Theatre artists place people and things onstage to tell their stories, assigning these objects new significance inside the context of the play. Consider how, more often than not, props do not function like they would in the real world. Their onstage purpose is not to work as usual, but rather to represent an idea.

An example of this is the way director Rachel Chavkin utilizes lamps in the Broadway production of Hadestown. While the hanging fixtures execute their normal function of providing light, the way they are moved through the space doubly provides information about Orpheus’s sensory and emotional experience as he travels to the Underworld. With the addition of this secondary purpose, Chavkin has imbued these objects with new, unprecedented life. Nearly every review of the show mentions this design, which recently earned a Tony Award. If Hadestown is any indicator, successful theatremaking is the act of giving new meaning to, or objectifying, the stuff of the world. This is not, in and of itself, a source of harm.

If spectatorship is not considered, if this artificial binary is left unchallenged, audiences are allowed to remain passive, both during and after the play.

Rather, it is the way we, as a culture, interpret these onstage signs that can produce the harmful effects we associate with objectification. When most spectators watch a play, they want to piece together the clues put forth by the artists and unlock a deeper meaning that makes them smarter and more complete. Audience members—especially those who participate in our Western capitalist culture founded on the value of accumulation—will naturally hunt for significance in a performance with the ultimate goal of personal enrichment. Their seemingly anonymous gaze is given full autonomy to do what it is programmed to do: consume. In this process of self-edification, the play is reduced to an idea that the individual can understand and utilize in the way they see fit. In other words, it is objectified.

A production that does not acknowledge the natural instincts of an audience under capitalism creates conditions that encourage audience passivity. These plays are the ones that allow audiences to watch a narrative that explores a societal problem, consider themselves well-versed in the issue, and then leave contented by the fact that they engaged in a piece of politicized culture. Even the most potent narratives—the ones that pose productive threats to the dominant discourse—can be undermined by an audience that has been permissioned to exist on the sidelines. Regardless of the production’s intent, the space where the spectator meets the play has the power to determine the way in which the play’s messaging is received.

actors onstage

The Fly Honey Show, created and directed by Erin Kilmurray. Photo by GlitterGuts.

Directing the Gaze

Addressing this element of the theatre does not mean dissolving all convention, nor does it mean that plays utilizing a proscenium setup have less capacity to be socially profound. It is possible for creators to appreciate the dynamics of the audience’s gaze, regardless of the stage space being used, and then make a choice about how to direct it.

A simple starting place is to ask: Who is the audience inside this performance? Some productions opt for specificity in the way the audience is contextualized. Take, for example, how the audience is placed into the role of concert attendees in Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die, which I saw at Chicago’s Haven Theatre in 2017. Or perhaps they are steeped in a familiar, evocative genre, just as the style of Lauren Yee’s Hookman (a play I worked on at Steep Theatre in 2017) invites audiences to feel as if they are watching a horror film. Other works might choose more dramatic alterations in the environment, like the cabaret-style space of the Inconvenience’s annual Fly Honey Show, in which audience members are encouraged to vocalize freely and move about at their leisure. Another example still is the Hypocrites’ twelve-hour epic All Our Tragic, which provided opportunities for individuals to connect through communal food breaks. Even though these works are very different, all of these choices are effective ideas for giving structure to the audience’s experience.

While there are infinite ways to address the audience’s positioning inside a theatrical work, all serve the same purpose of including the spectator in the event of the play.

Some plays do not lend themselves to a unique physical or conceptual arrangement. In those cases, creators can ask themselves alternative questions, like: How am I including the audience as co-authors of this experience? How am I inviting them to be mentally present? Take, for example, the Chicago-based company Manual Cinema. Their hybrid shadow puppet and live video shows are marked by a design choice to present all characters as silhouettes. This asks the audience to imagine the features and expressions of the characters as the narrative unfolds. In a piece like their The End of TV, the story of an elderly woman with dementia becomes deeply personal as the viewer is asked to help flesh out her character in their own mind’s eye. In this way she becomes everyone’s grandmother, mother, and maybe even their future selves.

Another example of audience co-authorship is Jackalope Theatre’s recent production of In the Canyon by Calamity West, which I worked on as a dramaturg. The five acts in this play span fifty years into the future, following a woman as she deals with the increasing regulation of abortion access in a post-2016 society. West chose to give some information about how society had evolved in the time elapsed between each act, but not much. Craving to know more about West’s predictions for our future, the audience was compelled to fill in the gaps themselves, which created a nightmarish new reality along with the play.

two actors onstage

In the Canyon by Calamity West at Jackalope Theatre. Photo courtesy of Jackalope Theatre.

It is also possible that a production may decide that audiences inside their play are just that: audiences. There are many existing works, both proscenium and otherwise, that are aware of their audience’s innate desire to know everything and encourage this habit to engage them in the performance. For example, the immersive performance Sleep No More by the London-based company Punchdrunk invites their audience to explore a series of rooms and scenes while wearing masks. The anonymity gifted by the mask empowers audiences to be active voyeurs; as they walk freely through the performance they become hunters of information, trying to piece together the larger meaning of the work. Critically, Sleep No More is so detailed, complex, and entropic that it is not possible for a single viewer to understand—or even locate—every artistic choice. In this way, the production defies being assigned a singular meaning. Instead, it asks viewers to abandon those aspirations and instead focus on their own emotions, physical instincts, and sensory experiences. In other words, this work uses traditional spectatorship to interrogate the ends of spectatorship, shedding light on the fact that it takes something as disruptive as being placed in an entirely different universe to break us from our relentless habits of meaning-making.

The plays that have given me a specific, unique experience as a viewer are the ones that energize me to explore new behavior in my own life.

Active Spectatorship

While there are infinite ways to address the audience’s positioning inside a theatrical work, all serve the same purpose of including the spectator in the event of the play. When the play becomes something you did (rather than something you saw), it transcends the stage and becomes a part of each audience member’s personal narrative. These are the plays we tell other people they can’t miss, because for us they were life-changing experiences.

An activated audience in the space of performance creates active community members in the world. From personal experience, the plays that have given me a specific, unique experience as a viewer are the ones that energize me to explore new behavior in my own life: to see part of my world in a new way, to do more research later, to donate my money and time. After seeing The End of TV, I reached out to my family a little more. After working on In the Canyon, I organized a panel to amplify abortion access providers in my community and donated money to relevant organizations. After attending Sleep No More, I started doing my own research on spectatorship, which I have written a thesis on, and now this article. These are just a few of my own examples, but there are countless recorded ripples in the world initiated by moments of spectatorship. Personal, social change comes in many forms; what all these reactions have in common is that they were sparked by expansive experiences at the theatre. We cannot settle for theatre that ends at the acknowledgment of questions or issues. We need dramatic work, instead, to spark beginnings.

Regardless of genre and content, when an audience experience has been considered, the potential exists for a play to move from a good story to a site of social change. There is no theatrical tradition that is exempt from addressing this connective tissue; if a play does not engage its audience, then it is possible theatre is not the correct medium for the story. At the end of the day, theatre is live—only possible when people are in a room together. We must continue to attend to the form’s liveness and activate it as part of our storytelling.

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Great article.  Important clarity about social character of capitalist audiences as consumers and accumulators.  Key in devising ways to undo those ways of being within the theatre experience.  You open important doors for further exchange.  How might that happen beyond these comment chats?

Thank you Bob! My hope is that this will inspire artists to challenge their production teams to consider the theatricality of their work more intentionally. I would encourage anyone to engage their collaborators directly on this question, and figure out how this is applicable for their work, whatever it may be. 

This was a fantastic article and gave me a lot to think about--thank you for this thoughtful and thorough exploration!