What a Wonderful Show: Renewing Audience Engagement

bored audience

Katharine Kavanagh – who is currently writing for theatre ensemble Awkward City – wrote this piece for tb.net as part of our open call for ideas and opinions – Get Heard . As such the views in this piece are her own rather than those of Theatre Bristol. If you’ve got something you’d like to share with the theatre community email us at [email protected] .

‘What a wonderful show’
…’I thought it was a touch too long.’
‘Yes I’d trim the 2nd act’
‘But I wouldn’t cut the interval.’
‘Oh no I thought the interval was marvellous.’

‘Shakers’, by John Godber

Once upon a time, people from all walks of life would throng to the theatre, revelling in its ability to show us life, tell us stories, and bring people together. Theatre wasn’t just a play, it was a social diaspora of laughter, tears, shouts and fights; people selling their wares (any one for oranges?), meeting friends, talking and sharing; the gentry, the struggling artists, and Joseph Bloggs off the street.

Well, that was Shakespeare.

Now, most of the time, theatre is a hushed and reverential affair among the middle-aged middle-classes or the dedicated arts-community, where the only sounds you are likely to hear are the placing ogether of hands at ‘appropriate’ moments, and the odd cough or shuffle of boredom/appreciation. It’s hardly surprising that for many theatre-goers today the best bit is the interval.

Oh yes, the performers may be going at it with bells and whistles, but where is the audience in all of this?

To write about audience engagement, naturally, I wanted to do my research. But amazingly, there is Very Little Out There. Sure, there are loads of theories on specific forms of structured audience involvement and participation – Theatre Games style impro shows, forum theatre, promenade performance, and theatre devised within and for communities – but what is the basic need that makes an audience connect across the board?

What have we lost over the last 400 years, and where are the small seeds of that vitality still poking out new shoots?

When I think of a large crowd of people having a shared emotional experience at a cultural event in a social environment, unfortunately theatre is rarely one of the contenders. (Large scale public shows such as Royal de Luxe’s The Sultan’s Elephant, and the Spike Theatre productions in Liverpool parks each year are some notable exceptions) What do spring to mind are football matches, and popular music concerts: the performers are doing their thing; the audience are watching attentively; they are emotionally engaged. And they are having a whale of a time.

Perhaps the key here is that while The Audience is watching attentively at all times, individual members of the audience are free within that to avert their gaze, have a chat, join in with some communal singing or buy a hot-dog (oranges anyone?).

I suggest that theatre in the 20th Century burdened individual audience members with so much responsibility, through gradually developed norms and etiquettes, that a relaxed and free environment where an audience member can truly just be himself and react naturally in the moment became impossible. Do we want that to continue into the 21st Century?

In 2007, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport commissioned a report to investigate what motivates people to engage in cultural activities. In our ‘experiential economy’ (apparently these days people prefer to spend their money on ‘achieving experiences’, as opposed to accumulating material goods – that should work in favour of the live arts, at least) it doesn’t surprise me to discover that ‘fun’ was found to be a high motivator. What’s more interesting is that ‘socialisation is the key to driving demand’. Aha! I knew it! At least at the interval you can go and have a drink and a chat with people about what you’ve just seen…

So, where is the ‘social’ in today’s theatre?

I guess no-one will argue that cabaret and revue style shows have seen a fantastic resurgence of life in the public consciousness over the last 10 years. There, audiences can sit around a table with their friends and a drink (or two!), sharing the experience together, instead of facing ‘the show’ in blinkered rows. I recently saw the fabulous La Clique at the London Hippodrome, and we were treated to moments of real conversation with the performers during their acts – we were there, they were there: we were all having a laugh, right?

But the acts aren’t story telling, and the sketches of shows like the Canal Café’s ‘news-revue’ don’t have the dramatic and emotional power of the classics, so you don’t get the opportunity to be drawn in, to want to know what happens next.

So traditional pantomime is probably the closest thing we have to an original Shakespearean experience these days (…and there is a topic worthy of much more discussion than I can afford it here…). There is a story. There are dramatic highs and lows. There’s also a bit of singing, joining in, and having a laugh. The best bits are often those that appear in the moment of connection between a performer and his audience, where the script (but not the story running behind it all) is lost. The audience know they can get away with calling out to the performers, pinching their bum if they come too close, or showing their enjoyment and displeasure vocally and physically.

Unsurprisingly, it is often those audience members with the least experience of theatre norms and etiquette who express themselves most fully, and therefore get the most enjoyment out of the event.

But it’s not quite there. The audience participation most often follows safe, well-established conventions.

Oh no it doesn’t.
Oh Yes, it does.

In order for things to change for the better, we need to start re-educating ourselves about the nature of theatre, as audience members, and as performers and makers. I agree with Bhaskar Ghose in his essay for India’s national magazine Frontline:

‘To any extent, the blame lies with the practitioners of theatre. They have failed to build on those unique strengths that theatre has… …Chief among these is the element of two-way communication between the performer and the spectator, the element of absorption, response and participation that makes a play come alive with an intensity very special to it’

As creators of theatre, we have become too focused on controlling Our Work. Our Show.

But in addition, the audience must not be isolated from each other either. It is the social element of a performance event that serves to bind an audience and the performers together in mutual appreciation and enjoyment.

So although great in many ways, Mr William Shakespeare was quite wrong in one – the ‘play’ is not the thing; it is only one element of what should be a social experience shared by everyone involved, on-stage and off.

Who needs an interval!

Katharine Kavanagh graduated from Dartington College of Arts in 2005, and has since worked in a variety of theatre forms, as well as training further at Birmingham School of Acting, and with NoFitState Circus. She likes to cover all bases…She is currently writing for theatre ensemble Awkward City’s latest production Trip The Light Fantastic, and previous writing for performance has been shown at Presence Festival 2005, Ways With Words literary festival, and Dartington College of Arts Festival 2008, and Katharine’s piece Aporic Cynischism was short-listed for the Hall For Cornwall’s ‘Opening Lines’ competition. She also works to facilitate the sharing of stories through the communities of Birmingham with Needle and Thread Theatre (formerly Kipepeo Arts). Her major interests lie in physical performance, the physical manifestations of language and phonosemantic influence, and an exploration of the vital, animal nature of what if means to be human, as well as the influence of stories over, around and through our humanity.