The Power of an Audience

By on 31 March, 2017 in Art, Fun, Sarah Thornton with 1 Comment

“There is a certain immortality involved in the theatre, not created by monuments and books, but through the knowledge the actor keeps to his dying day that on a certain afternoon, in an empty and dusty theatre, he cast a shadow of a being that was not himself but the distillation of all he had ever observed; all the unsingable heartsong the ordinary man may feel but never utter, he gave voice to. And by that he somehow joins the ages.” – Arthur Miller

We all love a comedy. We all love to laugh and be entertained. Musicals that are filled with big dance numbers and colorful costumes and upbeat chorus numbers can be great fun too. There are also musicals and plays that are heartbreakingly powerful that show people in turmoil, characters learning difficult lessons, stories that create a steady, quiet change in the audience. Sometimes, it is a tough sell to convince an audience to spend the night at the theater seeing a serious show. You work hard all day, and you just want to relax and have some fun. I understand, believe me! But what are you missing if you never let yourself go to the theater and experience the tougher stuff? What are you denying your spirit and mind if you only open yourself up to the stories that are easy to swallow? I’ve never heard an audience member leaving the theater after a production of Cupcakes and Puppies (I made that up…) proclaiming that it “stirred my spirit,” that “got into my head for days,” that it “gave me goosebumps.”

I was once in a production of Hamlet (definitely NOT a comedy) with one particular performance that lives in my memory forever. The audience was made up of children from sixth grade through high school, thrilled to be getting out of class for the day, but maybe less thrilled to have to sit and watch a Shakespearean tragedy. We actors could feel their lack of focus right from the beginning as they fidgeted in their chairs and whispered to each other and giggled and “shhh”d each other jokingly. Suddenly, there was a palpable shift. No one was moving. You could hear a pin drop. There was electricity in the air. We had them! They were listening! By the time we got to the final act of the play (WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS), the children were crying out, “No, Gertrude! It’s poisoned!” as the queen reached for the goblet. They were gasping as Laertes took up the sword with the venomous tip. They cheered like they were at the Super Bowl when Hamlet stabbed Claudius. And they sniffled reverently as Horatio gave his final speech. It was an incredible feeling for everyone involved.

I’ve likewise been sitting in an audience watching a play that many consider a masterpiece of theater, a difficult and powerful story, and the audience was so badly behaved that it was a crime to the talented people who were onstage. The actors were trying their hardest to be vulnerable and honest in some pretty difficult human moments, and their audience was laughing at the tragedy (maybe nervous laughter, maybe just plain rudeness). That experience certainly affected me, though not the way the play intended perhaps. I was shaken. Why would an audience laugh at such heartbreaking moments? Are they afraid to be uncomfortable? Are they unsure if they can handle the emotion if they give in to it? Why is it that we as a society can sit and watch violent or difficult movies and television without batting an eye, but seem unable to do the same at the theater?

There is a great responsibility and a great power in being an audience member in a live performance. We all want to have that electrifying experience. We want to be engulfed in the world being created for those few hours. While no two audiences are the same, they all share a vital role in the success of a performance. The audience has an incredible ability to shape the experience. Anyone who has ever been seeing a show when a phone goes off, or someone keeps talking, or someone snuck in a bag of chips knows what I’m talking about. Theater is not like the movies. There is no screen separating the world of the story from the people watching it. Theater is interactive, and everyone plays a role in how the “two hours’ traffic” will go.

So how do we as audience members honestly “turn off and tune in?” Everyone has things going on in our lives, and sometimes leaving the outside world at the door is easier said than done. We live in a time of instant gratification, of cell phones and DVR and multi-tasking with three electronic devices, never truly investing all of our attention in any one thing. You could go an entire day without actually having to speak to another human. Perhaps this way of coexisting has made actual connection impossible. I hope not. It is a firm belief of mine that art is one of the antidotes that will keep us all from becoming completely detached and disconnected from our fellow man. It is the responsibility of artists to tell stories and encourage empathy and connect you to the people around you. It is the responsibility of the audience to be open to that connection, to listen, to be present. The outside world can wait. Allow yourself a few hours to be in the moment, open to the experience, and see how it changes you.

The Playhouse began our season with The 39 Steps, a fast-paced, goofy, energetic comedy. We flew airplanes and jumped across train cars, we laughed and laughed some more. We had a great time, and we hope our audiences did too! Our next production, The Crucible, is a powerful drama, one that is particularly timely even though it was written over 60 years ago. There is a reason that students still study this play in school. It is history, yes, but it is so much more. We are also taking an extra step to engage the audience. We are transforming the theater space and putting the audience on all sides of the stage. “Theater in the Round” is a truly captivating way to see a play. We are all right there together in the action, actors and audience. The audience will become members of the community of Salem, sitting jury at the trials as witnesses and suspects, victims and judges. Whether the story scares you, saddens you, gives you hope, inspires you, I guarantee that if you allow yourself to experience it, it will absolutely affect you.

Get your tickets for Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE at the Cloverdale Playhouse, running April 27 until May 7.

Visit or call the box office at 334-262-1530 for more information.

Sarah Walker Thornton is the Artistic Director of the Cloverdale Playhouse, who walks like a New Yorker and waves like an Alabama girl. She is a product of a Montgomery arts education, with several years of life in NYC thrown in for extra flavor.

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