An appreciation of the audience

Claude Solnik

Where you sit is not just where, but who you are. Now of course, the same could be said of everything. What you wear, what you eat, what you enjoy, what you dislike. Still, where you sit in a theater, for instance, says a lot about what you want, what you hope and what your approach is to what you’re going to see. As a playwright, at least at shows I’ve written, I always sit in the back. Now what does that mean? Part of that is, as a writer, I feel very much like an outsider. I watch the world around me. But the other aspect of that is that I like to watch not just the show, but the audience. And after years of watching audiences, I wanted to write not about a show, but a few observations, and appreciations, of the audience.

I won’t say that I can tell much if anything about an audience before the show starts, beyond its size. But there is something strange about how an audience makes itself known within seconds – or at least its take on a show. If it’s a comedy and there’s an early laugh, there are likely to be many more. If a joke that usually gets laughs doesn’t, chances are that most jokes won’t either. Somehow, the tone is set, the atmosphere is established. Now part of this can be the performance, naturally. But whatever the reason, is something about those first few seconds and minutes. Some might call them sacred. They are clearly significant. First impressions are often last impressions as well. There’s a famous story about how the classic Oklahoma! was having a rough start. They wrote, well, Oklahoma! and suddenly the start and the whole show seemed to come together. There is something about those first few minutes, when an audience and the actors get to know each other. If the date or the night begins well, expect more of the same. The two meet and they like each other or, well, they see more light between them.

Audiences do have a collective character, or at least, they frequently do. I think empty seats in a theater, however, have the same effect that they do in a restaurant. An audience is one being, like a hydra-headed creature, people who live the e pluribus unim motto. Out of many people, there is one audience. Everybody goes on the same roller coaster, even though they may have a different experience. That may be why empty seats, I’m convinced, can influence the experience. Just as fans at a baseball game do the wave, a show can wash over an audience in waves. Empty seats mean emptiness, spaces that break the sweep of emotion. I remember one show with a lot of empty seats. Each person seemed isolated, alone, as if they were not part of that single huge fabric woven out of actors and audience. Those spaces felt like gaps that stopped any collective energy from forming. Once those seats fill up, though, that collective identity can exist again. That is one reason that producers give away tickets rather than having empty seats. There is also the stigma of an empty seat, although, really, a show is the same show whether the crowd is there or not. Actors sometimes give great performances to an empty house and vice verse. But actors do work off the energy of an audience. And an audience itself can ride the wave of its own energy.

I have been a theater reviewer, reviewing dozens and maybe hundreds of shows, over the years. Ironically, I always made it a point to try to experience the show as audience – and then write a review, encapsulating my experience. My concern today is that many people, in part because of social media, arrive, identifying themselves as “critics” and not audience members. It’s as if there is something more respectable about being a “critic,” as if it is work to see a show and form an opinion. As if the opinion is the main thing, not the exploration of emotion and the experience. An audience is there to enjoy, to appreciate. That is an important role – as important as all the others. Without the audience, there truly is no show any more than there is a sound with no-one to hear it. A sound wave is not a sound. A show is not a show without an audience.

But many people from websites today arrive, as if being an “audience member” is somehow a lowly occupation. It is not. Audiences are the reason there is theater. Audiences are the reason there are actors. Audiences are the ones who truly “create” theater with the actors and other theater markers. There is the belief that if  you are a critic, you are somehow more perceptive. In reality, people who arrive, saying they are critics may misunderstand the word. They may seek to be “critical,” to find what’s wrong with this picture. That is not a critic’s mandate. Don’t look for what is “wrong,” an uncomfortable seat, a bumpy set change. Look for the joy, what is right. Find the glory in what is going on. You must experience the play first, suspend disbelief, go with it. Then come up with your perspective. But seek to become one with the show, one with the experience. Go with the show. Enjoying a play is what theater is about. Actors, I hope, enjoy their performance. I certainly enjoy seeing good actors at work. Audiences go to enjoy. “Critics,” at least in some people’s minds, go to discover difficulty.

Theater, I believe, is all or largely about the audience. And that is why I wish people would be more proud and realize the importance of seeing a show. It is not what you “say” about the show, you’re your own ability to experience it. Theater is live and, I am convinced, it is experienced in a way very different than screens are. When someone shouts, they are shouting at us. When they smile, they are smiling at us. We are part of this whole ecosystem. When people arrive, seeking to separate themselves, to hold back, they are, really, repudiating the role of audience. And audience, after all, is an important role. Not just the actors performing there, but the people for whom they perform.

I suppose what I’m saying is, just as an actor must act, an audience must not be self-conscious, but allow themselves to experience what is before them. When we go to movies, we never want to sit in the front, because we are overwhelmed by the spectacle – and can’t even see it. When we go to comedy, we risk becoming the butt of the joke when we sit in the front. I’m convinced, though, that when we sit toward the front of a play, we are experiencing it so much larger, so much closer. When I do sit toward the front, I am amazed by how real, how much a part of the show, I feel. I suppose I write, because I’m comfortable being an outsider. I’m afraid sometimes, people in the audience also want to remain outsiders. We need to let ourselves be brought into the world of a show –  no matter where we sit. At one show not long ago, we had so many people that the audience members’ feet literally stretched to the edge of the stage. Actors were inches away from the audience. That neat proscenium line was broken: actors and audience, like it or not, were one. Theater is about actors and audience becoming one, experiencing the same show in a different way together. Theater is a collective experience, but it is first and foremost an experience. The next time you go to a play, even if you may feel like a critic, I would ask you to remember the important role of the audience.  Don’t look for what’s right or wrong. Just forget you are there and experience what is going on – wherever you may be seated.