The contemporary theatre is based on fear.
The actors are afraid of the audience.
The audience is afraid of the actors.
The audience files into the theatre. They are separated from the actors by the division of seats and stage. In some cases even by a deep pit in habited by people so terrified of being seen that they’re hiding behind instruments.
The audience generally sits in chairs. Sometimes even removed from the stage area by a bar in front, as has been the case in productions I’ve seen. At any rate, they are other. They are told to sit, to be quiet, and to clap at appropriate times.
Then the lights go dark, and out come the actors. Now, certainly all theatre is not the same. But much of it is. And much of it goes like this. When the lights come up, the actors, having failed to acknowledge the audience, proceed to have a discussion amongst themselves for about 2 and a half hours. Suddenly, the stage goes dark again. When the lights return, the actors are standing, facing the audience. The audience, as they are supposed to, applauds. The actors, smiling, bow and retreat offstage.
It’s no one’s fault in particular. Fear is systemic. We are taught, from a very early age, to sit quietly and give the attention to the person speaking, whatever they happen to be talking about and whether or not it is of any interest to us. From the classroom to the stage, this obedience is practiced dutifully until the very idea of reacting in an impulsive way is too horrifying to think about.
The first show that I ever saw in the round was probably something terrible, like Shakespeare. For obvious reasons my mind began to wander, and a thought occurred to me. What would happen if I simply stood up and walked on stage? What would they do, the actors, my poor family, if I walked into the action and slapped the lead? Or entered into the scene. Or broke the props? Being a product of the systemic fear I mentioned earlier, my 8 year old self did nothing. On I went, relegated to silent obedience through theatrical abortions too hideous to mention. Whenever I see a production of Peter Pan, I refuse to clap when Tinker Bell dies. For those not familiar, the gag is that the applause of the audience will bring her back to life. What, I have always wondered, would the actor playing Peter have to do if nobody clapped? That would be interesting.
Put into perspective with the rest of humanity, I suppose it’s one more manifestation of our collective fear of the unknown. If I ask the audience member a question, or invite them to react, what will happen? What if they don’t like me? What if they run into the scene and give me a hug? The possibilities are too excruciating to name, best to leave them be and assume that they think I’m fabulous.
What if that actor looks at me? What if they ask me a question? What if they actually want me to do something??? This is all too stressful! Honey, next Friday we’re going to the movies!
But guys, it hasn’t always been like this. Once upon a time, if you weren’t good enough to distract the audience from picking fights with each other, or with you, then you had no business being an actor. The theatre was a community platform. Plays were built and derailed based on their relevance, not on their star power. What else but fear could have prompted the musical Cats?
And that is the question I will leave you with.
More on this next time.
About the Author: Jen Davis is a stranger in a strange land. Following a life of wandering and re-location(where am i? WHO AM I?) she made a decisive (drunken) decision to forsake all things holy and move to Southern California. She recently received her BA in Theatre while narrowly avoiding a minor in philosophy. Jen has staged plays, mimes, sword fights, and cakewalks throughout the Pacific Northwest, most recently as Associate Artistic Director of Toy Boat Theatre Company. She seeks to revitalize and re-establish the theatre as a necessary part of American life through producing, writing, and generally crying out to anyone who will listen. Her marketable skills include learning to juggle, baking, and persistence.