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The attending versus the attentive audience

In a previous blog I stated: … Returning to my questions of who actually attends live performance and who cares…

By Tracy Fuller , in Blogs Engaging the Stage , on January 28, 2008

In a previous blog I stated:

… Returning to my questions of who actually attends live performance and who cares about it, a superficial survey of most theatre audiences have indicated a 3:1 ratio of wrinkles to rockers…

I must clarify that the two categories mentioned above are neither mutually exclusive nor inclusive. People who go to the theatre don’t always care about it, and many people who care deeply about theatre often can’t afford to go. Making assumptions based on the superficial composition of one or two audiences does justice to no one and simply makes me appear ignorant.

Choosing to go to the theatre, however, is a complicated cultural decision… or so it seems. Inhibitive mediating factors that simply do not apply to movies or concerts arise when one considers a night of live performance.

For one thing, theatre attendance requires more forethought and seemingly higher stakes. Live performance runs are often short, tickets are expensive and limited, venues are few and far between, and there is the awkward uncertainty regarding what to wear when attending live performance.

If, after reserving seats, paying for parking, getting all dolled-up and buying tastefully tiny glasses of wine at intermission, you don’t enjoy the show, you’re likely to feel more shortchanged than if you’d blown $25, last-minute, on crappy seats for the new Will Smith zombie flick.

At least you’ll be able to criticize the film’s overblown production values and pathetic premise with your co-worker the next day, because s/he too will have seen or at least heard of it. Bemoaning the underwhelming new Moliere production is likely to get you blank stares and forced coughs, which will simply add to your feelings of cheated disappointment.

There is also the anonymity factor.

When you go to a film, even if you’re in a sold-out movie theatre, you can acceptably ignore the other patrons. When the lights dim, you need not interact with anyone or anything. The white screen will reflect coloured light at you and the DTS surround-sound will flood your ears with noise, but you won’t need to do anything. The movie will do it for you. You can take it all in or shut your eyes. You can even sleep if you want to: worry not, no one will notice you, and if they do, they are the ones who will feel awkward for noticing. It’s a Soma-addict’s dream.

Live performance, however, demands recognition. Actors, dancers, musicians will look back at you from the stage and demand some response — even if it’s just applause when the spectacle is over. Aggressive or passive, live theatre needs you to be alive and aware. Falling asleep is a HUGE faux pas punishable, in some venues, by audible scoffs, disapproving nudges and forcible ejections by uptight ushers. There is no requirement for you to enjoy or excogotate the performance, per say, but you are expected to willingly witness it. This means remaining alive enough, as an audience member during the performance, to respond to and engage with the work, should it move you.

The fear of having to respond is what keeps a lot of people away from live theatre, I think. The allure of lazy spectacle is too cheap and easy. Living and reacting is hard work. Eye contact is uncomfortable and clapping hurts the hands.