Eileen Kern

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Theater Audience

I recently caught a post-show talk-back after seeing Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and an audience member asked the following question (paraphrased from memory):

Tonight’s audience was clearly a “theater audience.” Do you find that some audiences are “theater audiences” (more participatory, more clearly engaged with the live performance) and some are more like “television audiences” (less participatory, more distant from the live performance)?

And while, ultimately, the audience in general wanted to know more about the impact “audience type” had on the actors on the stage, I walked away with an interest in what this distinction means for the consumer of art.

That is, on the one hand, one way of looking at this distinction involves likelihood of actor interaction with audience. In theater, whether it is built into the production or not, there is always the chance that actors will react to the audience’s energy, words, or actions. In this particular production of As You Like It, audience members were called on to dance or to speak a word once in a while. This means that, especially for the audience members in the first few rows, there was a chance that non-actors could be called on to contribute to the play.
There’s nothing like that with television as it is executed today–the closest I’ve participated in was voting in XBox Live polls during the 2012 election season, but it’s not as though my results were funneled back to the politicians in real-time–they were only provided in aggregate to other XBox Live watchers. And, of course, audience votes do determine the results in some reality TV contests, but again the response to the audience reaction isn’t in real-time.

On the other hand, the distinction could also be related to the audience’s experience. In this case, “theater audience” and “television audience” are misnomers–I’ve seen plenty of people react viscerally to the Big Game on TV, and seen plenty of people react with internalized interest at the theater.

But, if we allow ourselves the same implied bias as the audience member–if we imagine that being an invested, active participant in art is in some cases better than passive interest or actual disinterest–it gives us a clear sense of what kinds of art we should seek out: Art that makes us react, art that makes us feel.

This is especially true when it can be so easy to skim through media or tune out while watching a video and remember very little the next day. I do think that there are merits to recharging in front of the TV or computer, or to passively consuming other art. But I think my key takeaway is that, if I am looking to feel inspired by art, I need to seek out art (in various forms) that engages me as though I were a participant in that art.