I’ve just been reading an old Shenton’s View blog post for The Stage, about audiences, and how integral they can be to a performance. He was looking at it from a fellow-audience-member point of view – clearly, in one evening, he suffered from the ‘cougher’ and from a couple of ‘talkers’ and ‘gigglers’. He found it so off-putting he requested to move seats during the interval.
Imagine then, what it’s like to be an actor with distractions like that from the audience. There is, for example, as well as the aforementioned offenders, the ‘boiled sweet brigade’. These are the folk of a certain age who will usually attend on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, or a matinee if there is one, they may have a rug to put over their knees while they enjoy the entertainment, and they will have brought a lovely bag of Werther’s Originals to suck on. There is little more off-putting during a quiet, emotion-ridden scene for an actor, than the sound of a boiled sweet being tentatively unwrapped. It takes forever and is never nearly as quiet as the opener assumes.
There are also the ‘whisperers’ – possibly worse even than ‘talkers’ although it’s a fine line. ‘Whisperers’, certain that they can’t be heard, may well share a running commentary alongside the action on stage, and fail to realise that when the house lights go down and the beginners take the stage, that it is time to shut up.
Audiences also feed off one another, although it’s unlikely they realise that they do. I’m always grateful when I’m in a play that isn’t billed as a comedy, but may have the occasional humorous line, to have a ‘laugher’ in the audience. This is someone who guffaws heartily at the slightest suggestion of a joke, and so confident and vocal is their amusement that the rest of the audience loosens up and is brave enough to laugh too.
In the recent production of Darker Shores that I ASM’d on, there was one particular performance where the audience, thanks to adverse weather, was less than expected and therefore somewhat scattered about the auditorium. There were no ‘laughers’ and due to the dispersal of the audience members, no one had the confidence to even chuckle. The actors literally had to battle against the silence that assaulted them at every turn and it was exhausting.
Then there is the opposite of that. I experienced, during my recent run of Skylight, a couple of audiences who were so involved I wondered if I’d wandered into a pantomime. At every performance I was gratified by the stillness and silence – boiled sweets were on hold, the ‘fidgeters’ were unmoving in their seats – they were truly engaged at every performance. Then on one occasion, when my character went to check her one-bar fire was working, I had two people call out “it is on!”. On another night, after my most ranting monologue, a woman in the audience half-whispered, half-shouted “Yes! Great!”. This is a phenomenon I’ve never encountered before but it amused me greatly! They, whoever they were, will go down in the annals of my most-favourite audiences of all time.