There has been little research and discussion of the behavior of theatregoing audiences in different parts of the world. I feel it is an important area that makers of theatre as well as performers involved in cross-cultural theatre collaborations need to pay attention to. Misunderstanding audience behavior can confuse performers and directors to a considerable degree.
In 2018, an MFA theatre student from Britain came to work with Mzuzu University students in a devised performance. During the premiere at the university, the student audiences, who found the play to be a mirror of what they do at the university, started clapping hands and commenting loudly. They were even giving instructions to the characters on stage, telling them what to do and what not to do. To the audience, the play was about them and for them, and they related to it. I was performing alongside the student actors I direct. The behavior of the student audience was not new to me and to the student actors, but it was new to the visiting theatre professor from Britain.
The visiting professor was displeased with the actors. Based on the audience’s reaction, he thought the actors were behaving funny on stage. This was because he saw the audience laughing and clapping too much and a lot of audience talk towards the actors and among themselves. The reaction was like that of football spectators. His observation was compounded further by the fact that he could not understand the language, but he knew that play very well. I tried to explain about the audience behavior in Malawi, but the explanation seemed not to satisfy him. It was clear he thought such appalling behavior by the audience and actors was unacceptable under any circumstances.
That actor told each actor backstage that it’s not that the audience that is cold, it’s the way audiences are in the Western world. His words proved true: we were surprised with a standing ovation at the end of the performance.
To understand the visiting professor’s reaction, I turned to theatre professionals who have worked in both Africa and the West. A theatre professor at the University of Malawi, Zindaba Chisiza, articulated clear differences in audience behavior:
“Most of Africa’s performance forms such as gule wankulu, Malipenga, vimbuza, visekese combine story, dance, song, music, and use of traditional musical instruments. In these performance forms, there is a strong element of co-performance. The audiences participate in certain moments by clapping hands, joining the singing, shouting directions to the performer, laughing, and talking with the performers. The audience is not just a spectator, but forms part of the performance. There is no barrier, in certain circumstances, between the audience and the performer in the world of the play. Hence you will see, even in a performance of classic plays on a proscenium stage, audience members shouting directions to an actor when he/she is about to do a stupid thing. In the Western world, hardly do they break the wall between audience and performers unless it is an avant-garde kind of performances where there is deliberate breaking of the wall and the audience is engaged to participate.”