On the audience

Lately I’ve been doing my pre-season ritual – working my way one more time through Simon Callow’s autobiography/manual for the modern actor/manifesto for a new theatre Being an Actor. I was first assigned this book in college, as part of my senior-year acting class at Middlebury – and of course I didn’t read it then. I actually think that my professor never intended us to read most of the books were we were assigned for that class at that time – she was merely stocking our library with them for a time when we were ready for them.

For the which, thank goodness! Both that I wasn’t really required to read them then (my final semester at school was dominated by directing my thesis, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale) but also that when I graduated, I had a fully stocked library. Because when I finally sat down and read Callow’s book, it was revelatory. The way he describes both the working arc of his life, his analysis of the working life of a professional theatre, his manifesto urging an actor-centered theatre, and finally his “gloomy postcript” on the state of theatre today – all of it served to show me the world I was entering in an entirely new light.

And continues to do this for me. Each time I read it – and it really is an annual ritual – a different part of the text leaps out at me. A few nights ago, sitting outside with a lovely evening breeze and a glass of wine to hand, the following passage about the audience leapt out at me:

The question is, what have they come for? And what are you offering them? This is, precisely the question on which most theories of drama devolve. For me, none of them, the Stanislavsky, the Brecht, or the showbiz, answers the demands of the harsh reality of night by night playing. The Stanislavsky approach, with an almost religious belief in the value of portraying real life, has always seemed to me to require a passivity of the audience which I find unexhilirating. The Brechtian antidote, the constant demand of the audience that they compel their brains to political activity, finds me wanting in the required conviction myself: how can I demand it of them? The showbiz prescription, that you must love the audience, is nonsensical and neurotic. Nonsensical because it is impossible to love people you don’t know; neurotic because it’s only the masked demand for the audience to love you.

What I have come to is this: the essential attitude to the audience in one of compassion. I began to understand this while playing Restoration: let the audience laugh, don’t make them laugh. Make them witty. Into the auditorium they stream, battered, dislocated, alienated, unhuman — feeling the loss of their humanity, the erosion of their human parts. Our job is to restore them, to massage or tease or slap the sleeping parts into life again. Above all we address ourselves to the deadened organ, the imagination. It’s like the doctor’s art, or the courtesan’s. The doctor can’t love every patient, the courtesan can’t love every client. It’s common humanity that keeps you going. In this sense, every actor has signed an unwritten hippocratic oath.”
Callow, Simon. Being an Actor. St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1995. pp. 204-205.

There is something so refreshing in this description – the act of the play is one of compassion. It puts us on a level playing field. We’re not trying to instruct the audience or lead them to a place they don’t want to go – we’re reminding them of our shared humanity and inviting them on a journey with us. And doing the best we can to help guide them along the way.

I love this idea. And for us, in particular, it resonates. Our name comes from a longer quote by Howard Barker that I also try to re-read on a regular basis as a reminder:

I’ll be your guide
And whistler in the dark
Cougher over filthy words
And all known sentiments recycled for this house

Second Prologue to The Bite of the Night

The goal we set out for ourselves in the founding of Whistler was to find plays that would stretch us and our audiences – would make us really work for an understanding – but that we, the artists involved in each production, would be there as guides. We would, through our work in the rehearsal hall, lay the groundwork for the audience to enter into the play in a spirit of discovery, but not of being taught.

I like refining and refinishing this relationship.

When you enter our theatre as an audience member, what is it you are looking for?

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2 Responses to On the audience

  1. Pingback: Masking the Greeks | Whistler in the Dark

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