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March 14, 2011 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Audiences in Theatre

The night is cold and dark as two sentries stand guard over the battlements of Elsinore Castle.

The armed men stand tall despite the frigid air, spears gripped in numb hands. Their every movement suggests discomfort, but a strong devotion to their duty. It is obvious that they are professionals. There is a tense, suspenseful air to the entire situation.

At this point, a stupid, gimmicky ringtone wafts almost teasingly out of the pocket of the gentleman sitting in front of you. He swears softly to himself and digs through what seems to be an unending supply of handkerchiefs to retrieve the offending phone, flooding a small portion of the audience with light and noise. Two seats behind, a pair of girls start giggling to each other through a mouthful of chips, their hilarity only increasing as the hapless phone-user drops his phone to the ground with a loud clatter. On stage, one of the sentries frowns slightly; his partner seems to be gripping his spear slightly more intensely, as if envisaging a body impaled upon its end. You feel a slight pattering as some of the chips, now thoroughly masticated, spray out across the audience from the mouths of the chattering girls.

Most theatre-goers can tell who is in the wrong in this situation; we have a seemingly inbuilt knowledge that certain behaviours are considered unacceptable as a theatrical audience. You don’t talk to the person next to you. You turn your cellphone off before entering the theatre. If you have to eat, do so quietly and within your own space. This is done as much out of respect to your fellows in the audience as to the performers on stage.

Yet audience-actor relationships are complicated things. In the words of Kenneth Haigh, “You need three things in the theatre: the play, the actors and the audience—and each must give something”. We understand that actors deserve our undivided attention for the short expanse of time in which we are available to them, but we also expect a certain value for the money we spend on seeing a performance. If said performance fails to deliver, we as an audience can feel we have wasted both our money and our time, commonly leading to a very distracted audience.

Good theatrical companies will realise the importance of their audience, and work hard to engage them. Whero’s New Net by Albert Belz kept the audience’s attention firmly upon the stage, telling an epic tale that incorporated elements such as music, tricky lighting and an excellent plot. Some theatrical groups take this audience interaction even further, such as comedy group The Improvisors, who go as far as to take suggestions and ideas from the audience in the shaping of their plots, involving the audience directly in the creation of the story.

In contrast, last year’s Mary Stuart at Circa felt more like going to see an extremely slow-moving film at the cinema than watching a play. The audience was completely unengaged, and as such there was a great deal of awkward shifting, food-eating, and cellphone-checking in the theatre as audience members tried to distract themselves by any means possible. This was likely extremely irksome to those people who were enjoying the play (I’ve been assured such people actually exist).

As an audience, we have to toe the fine line between enjoying ourselves at the theatre and just being rude to the performers. Disturbing the people around you in a theatre is never okay, it’s disrespectful to both the performers and the other people in the audience. With that said, you are there for your own enjoyment. But if the performers cannot keep you entertained and engaged, do the rest of the audience a favour and just leave. No one’s making you stay.

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