Audience, part 1

The audience is one of the two essential features of a live theatrical performance, along with the performer. The performing arts exist in a finite space and time; this means that a performance, which is the work of art in theatre, has a finite existence in time. It begins, and it is over. Another, similar work of art may be created the next night, but the different audience and differences in the performers themselves will make the next evening's performance a different work of art. Compare this aspect of the performing arts to painting; different audiences may flock to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa from year to year, or century to century, but the artwork remains constant in time and is unaffected by the presence of a different audience. Philosophers may argue the aesthetic paradox of whether or not a work of art can exist if no one sees it when they are talking about a painting, but in theatre, if the live presence of the audience is missing, the art form does not exist.

In live performance, the audience reacts to the performers who, in turn, react to the audience in a constant cyclic interchange. Actors will talk about "feeding off of" an audience's energy, especially in comedy, and complain about audiences who do not react in tangible ways. Actor's performances will vary greatly from one night to the next dependent in large part on audience feedback. Consider the differences in your reactions to a movie you have seen many times; the circumstances of your viewing will make the movie and your reaction to it seem different -- yet in this case there is no live exchange between you and the performers. Audience members will also effect one another's reactions. Large audiences are more likely to laugh or comment out loud than small audiences, in part because of the anonymity, and in part because others' reactions encourage and magnify your own reactions. You may laugh more, cry more, jump in your seat or respond vocally in a large, involved audience. Conversely, if the rest of the audience loves something that you dislike, it may intensify your own negative reaction to hear positive responses all around you.

In ancient times, theatre evolved from rituals which combined spiritual, social, educational, and artistic purposes. These rituals were highly participatory for the audiences. Like ancient audiences, theatre audiences today gather with individual expectations, a variety of levels of knowledge about the production, and a variety of personal tastes. Each audience, however, will form a collective identity for the length of the performance. Although audience members still participate in some sense in performances they attend, conventions of audience behavior today restrict the kinds of participation in the performance that was typical of ritual. Audiences applaud, laugh, boo, perhaps comment out loud, but are unlikely to offer alternative endings, to sing along, or to get up on stage and dance. Some forms of theatre requiring more audience participation remain popular today, examples include children's theatre, magic shows, or improv comedy.

While ritual performance has been universally a part of human history; each of us also has performance in our personal histories. Acting is a fundamental mode of human learning; children learn by acting out stories, games, things they see adults do, and things they imagine. As adults, we spend less time literally acting out our ideas, and we spend a great deal more time vicariously experiencing new stories or desires or dreams. When you see a play, read a novel, or go to the movies, a great deal of the pleasure of that aesthetic experience derives from your empathy with the characters and your vicarious experience of the characters' circumstances.

Film theorists have borrowed from psychoanalytic theory to develop a more complicated model of spectatorship, or how we relate to a filmic event, that is highly applicable to theatre as well. The first form of spectatorship derives from Freud's concept of "scopophilia", which literally means "pleasure in looking". As this concept is applied to audiences, it implies a voyeuristic relationship between audience and event, which is perhaps more appropriate to film than to some forms of theatre, which can be highly participatory as opposed to voyeuristic. Scopophilia suggests that the dramatic action unfolds magically in front of the spectator, unaffected by audience responses, yet gives the watcher an illusion of taking part in, or even controlling, the events of the drama. Consider how we tend to identify with the hero of a film: we shrink back when something threatens him or feel a sense of power when he defeats a foe. At the end we would be disappointed if he did not win the heart of the heroine.

A second idea derives from the "mirror stage", a concept more fully described in psycholanalysis by Lacan. In the "mirror stage" of human development, we see ourselves literally in the mirror and figuratively in other people like us (mom or dad) and imagine ourselves to be like those we see in the mirror, who are usually more powerful than ourselves, especially given that this stage describes children around age two. But film theorists suggest that this kind of imagining ourselves as more capable than we really are continues to shape us, primarily through our relationship to characters in narratives. This does provide a good explanation for our attraction to characters in such genres as action pictures or romances, in which we identify ourselves -- and perhaps literally model our behavior on -- the super human capacities of an action hero or the extremely attractive, poised, and talented romantic hero or heroine.

Note: if the language above seems sexist, that is because the psychoanalysts who defined the terms were quite unaware of their sexism. That gender stereotypes persist in Hollywood narratives is a different problem: they purport to speak to us, now. The psychoanalytic language above is now often used to expose the sexism of Hollywood traditions.


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