The Dramaturgy of Audience

Jayne Benjulian goes to the Theater as a Civilian

The last time I wrote for HowlRound, in October 2011, I was director of new play development at a theater. Since then, I have turned to the work of solitary writing. I have been in a kind of self-imposed exile learning again to write poetry, earning an MFA and assembling a manuscript of poems. Recently, after lunch with a mentor, I found myself in Philadelphia with nothing to do and no one to call. I bought a ticket to the Wilma Theater—and I emphasize that I paid for a theater ticket. I was too shy and too reluctant to call in favors for an industry ticket. And then, it dawned on me that I was presented with a gift: I might go to the theater as a civilian and see what it was like.

Paying for a ticket is the first mark that divides audience from industry. To be sure, I have paid for many, many tickets to performances, but I always purchased them (when I had to purchase them) through an industry contact so that I secured either a discounted rate or a choice seat—even when the house was “full”—or both. Buying a ticket is an active choice; it was my introduction to civilian life. That choice meant I wanted to see a play more than I wanted to do anything else or go anywhere else that night, including staying in my hotel room under the covers, ordering dinner from the Italian restaurant downstairs and reading stories by George Saunders, and I was willing to spend the money to do it. I booked a seat for a preview of Under the Whaleback. Truth to tell, the play didn’t matter: I would have gone to see anything directed by Blanka Zizka.

I want to report on my experience that evening because it was a rare opportunity to observe my own profession from the outside. I had time and distance. More, I wanted to see what it was like to be what I had been as a child, to recapture the joy of sitting in a theater seat and not know what is coming—to be thrilled by surprise. At least I wanted to try. To be sure, I went to plays at other theaters relentlessly when I was working a theater job—usually two or three nights a week—but when you are working in theater, there are, frankly, other things on your mind. Back then, I wanted to be entirely in the experience of the play, but let’s face it, I was also considering: Am I happy I passed on this play? Might a play by this playwright fit into our season? How is the audience reacting? Isn’t that one of our board members in the center? How is this director doing? Did she enrich what I read on the page or not? And so on.

The Wilma is located on Broad Street in Philadelphia, “The Avenue of the Arts,” as it is labeled by the city. What had I known of Philadelphia? The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute of Music—and Killadelphia, a one-man show written and performed by Sean Christopher Lewis. I asked a friend if I should take a taxi to the Wilma. She said it was so close to my hotel, a taxi driver would think I was insane. Was it safe? Yes, she insisted. Well, her boyfriend added, you might not want to carry a purse. I walked. With a purse. I strode, then slowed to a stroll down Broad, passing the lights of what might have been a dozen performance spaces. Across from the Wilma, there were crowds waiting to enter the Merriam Theater, the Suzanne Roberts Theatre (home of The Philadelphia Theatre Company) and the Academy of Music. All this art a-buzzing on the same street was a thrill I had experienced only—in this country at least—in the world-unto-itself of New York. I was reminded of the project in which several organizations are engaged to build an arts district in a rundown San Francisco neighborhood called “mid-market.” I hope fervently that project is realized. There is nothing like the sight of people moving in and out of performance spaces to remind us how compelling a city can be, how one art stimulates consumption of another, how theaters don’t compete: they tag team. And it reminded me that for people who attend theater and work in other professions, the entire evening is an experience: dinner, the walk downtown, the after-theater drink.

At the Wilma, I entered a big lobby space with a coat check, concession stand, and a screen showcasing photographs of past productions. The environment seemed spacious—and Spartan, the signs of a theater surviving, and wasting nothing, in a tough economic climate. I was a stranger in a strange land. My habitual routine was to eat dinner at my desk and drop into an empty seat at 7:55. At other theaters, colleagues arranged comp tickets, and I arrived ten minutes before curtain—max. Or I’d wait to see what seats were empty and let the usher seat me there. Unsure of how long it would take me to walk from my hotel to the Wilma, I arrived twenty minutes early. Why, I used to wonder, did all those patrons arrive so early with nothing going on in the lobby and nothing to do? Now I know. People who love theater would rather be early than risk having to rush to a seat. They like people-watching, and they like being in the theater building, a space of anticipation and separation from wherever they’ve come. I eavesdropped on lobby conversations, looked at the monitor, and reviewed all the promotional post cards stacked on the side table. I emptied my mind of the world outside the doors.

The house opened. In the lobby, the house manager gave the pre-curtain speech, ushers distributed programs. The theater itself was all magic, no business. I took my seat in the steeply raked Wilma in between an elderly couple and a middle-aged one. Younger people were sprinkled around the audience. I knew the playwright, Richard Bean, was a star in England, but I did no further research on the playwright or the play. I wasn’t taking notes. I was enjoying the ride. I skimmed the program, where I found contextual information about the fishing industry in Hull and an abbreviated interview with Bean. The contextual material was just right: it sketched the world in which this play occurs. I was left with questions, but none I had to have answered right away. The interview was too short. I understood I might go to the Web site for the full text, but I wanted more in the moment. I had, after all, ten minutes before curtain.

I attended a preview, and as at all theaters I had attended or at which I had worked, during previews the house was not full. I’d say (unofficially) one-half of the seats were filled. I heard pre-curtain chatter concerning past productions and future reservations. Theater is a space in which one stranger might turn to another and speak without embarrassment or apology—one need not introduce oneself formally in order to speak to a stranger. Theater, it occurred to me, is a place where I might engage in conversation without pretense, without hesitation. I need not fear intruding or someone thinking I was picking him up. I didn’t even need to fear being rejected. If someone doesn’t want to converse in a theater, he or she just says, “excuse me,” and walks to the concession stand or the bathroom. Or the lights go down and cut off the conversation. Theater was safe! I sat in that audience and felt I was not alone unless I wanted to be. There was so much to talk about, and strangers did talk to each other: Have you been to the Wilma before? What did you see? What did you think of it? And on and on. Not so different, one might say, from lone hikers in an organized hiking group, only hiking may not gather people so drawn to witnessing or feeling emotion or understanding story so directly as those who come to sit in a dark space and hear artists reflect back the human predicament.

The lights dimmed. I felt the luscious nakedness of surprise. The set (by designer Matt Saunders, sound by Daniel Perelstein) is a ship, static at first, and then, during a storm in the second act, it creaks, groans and lists; men hold onto rails to keep themselves from tumbling and smashing against wood. Faced into the center of the huge ship in act one, we grew used to its stillness, our focus so intently on the men that when the sea raged and the ship moved, we gasped. That frisson of shock that plunges us into another’s consciousness is why we come to theater. It happens only when we are immersed in a world in which we believe. We let go of our reality enough to open ourselves to the possibility of an alternate one. It is not so much what Bean did as what he did not do that describes Under the Whaleback. When a playwright creates gaps in language that compel our minds to remain on high alert so that we might learn the secrets of this world, we lean forward. Then—if a director understands how to enrich and complicate those gaps without explaining them—then we are vulnerable and open to a rich imaginative experience. Such was the case that night. I wanted to stay in my seat. I wanted to live at the Wilma forever.

If I tell the complete truth, I will say I was afraid of how I would feel sitting in an audience unknown, bereft of any official position. Fear no more, Jayne. The business of art is not to employ artists but to entertain. Perhaps more theater artists should take sabbaticals. I gained more empathy for audience members in one night than I did in years of working at a theater. The audience is a special community. It comes together for one ritual on one night; and perhaps its members, taken by that ritual, return again and again to the same performance space and to spaces around their city, even, perhaps, around their country. A dramaturg of the audience might say that the audience approaches theatrical space from a specific context: one city, one evening, and all the theater experiences its members have ever had, or not had. They may have insecurities about getting to the theater or their place in that audience or about understanding the play. At intermission, women meet each other for the first time on line for the women’s bathroom and speak to each other with absolutely no introduction. (I don’t know what the men do.) What just happened? Was the ship going down? Why did that fisherman run upstairs? I felt a part of something. What? It’s called an audience, a term not to be confused with a demographic. An audience concerns the experience of human beings witnessing a performance; a demographic concerns the perception from outside an audience about who the individuals might be who would willingly comprise an audience and how best to target marketing to induce those individuals to spend money to do so.

In poetry, all of my problems belong to me. What I miss about working in production is collaborative problem solving and the family, sometimes functional, sometimes not so much, that reshapes itself for every play. However, it is not just the people who work in theater who find community. I went to the theater alone and engaged with others, silently during the play and later in conversation. We gasped together and spoke to each other: on-line, in the lobby, and as we exited into the Philadelphia night.

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On stage pre-show speeches belong in the fifth circle of Hell. (A theater full of witnesses is the only reason I'm not currently sitting on death row.) So I'm surprised the House Manager gave his remarks in the lobby before patrons walked inside. Delighted, but surprised.

thank you, just thank you, for your thoughtful, articulate, human assessment of my favorite thing

I was right there with you. What an interesting perspective on an experience I've had many times but never took time t o analyze. I think I will remember t this when I am next a part of a theatre audience - and sit back to enjoy more than just the play.

You bring the reader right into the theater with you, as someone else has mentioned, I loved how you painted each scene with such surgical craft. You make the art of the theater accessible and understandable: the need for people to witness something together. Hope to see more of your amazing work!

As a frequent theater goer (and total outsider to the theater world in all other regards), I could really appreciate the perspective you brought to this piece. For me, a night at the theater is about so much more than just the play. It is about all that you mentioned -- the excitement of securing a good seat, making restaurant reservations and anticipating the show, arriving in the lobby and hearing the opening music, seeing the photos of the cast, the moment the curtain goes up and the set is revealed, the intimacy of sharing discussions with new-found friends during intermission, and the way the show stays with you into the night and the following days. Thanks for validating this in such a beautifully written essay!

What a beautifully written piece! I felt like I was in the Wilma with you. Oh, the magic of theater and the fun of being in the audience. Thanks for sharing your experience. It's a lovely piece, and it's sending me back to my local theater. You've made me remember how much I love going to plays.

Finely observed, superbly written. About theater, the audience as community, and how art that moves people gets made. Bravo.

What a beautiful perspective--loved this mingling of experienced self with beginner's eyes, the way you take us inside, still drawing on serious former knowledge and contexts to bring us into the scene of that particular performance and human connection. Lovely.