The lighting designer is assigned to light the actors and the stage to imply the proper mood for the given scene, the props master/mistress hunt out all of the required items for each script (and if they can’t find them, they make them), the sound guy, the director, the ushers, the box office, the actors, the musicians…well, you get the drift – we all have our job. The goal of each of these jobs is to put together the best damned play or musical to present to our audience.
The vast majority of theatre people donate their time and it’s a helluva lot of time. A minority are paid a small stipend, which rarely covers the cost of gas to and from the theatre. A lucky few are paid a working wage lasting for the duration of rehearsal and through closing. In the course of a play’s rehearsal and performance it is highly likely that each person will miss at least one:
Oftentimes friendships are tested, marriages are strained, work productivity suffers and always there is a constant balancing act to remain relatively healthy while barely treading water in your man-made stress pool.
We devote hundreds of hours rehearsing, memorizing and practicing. We eat in our car on the way to rehearsal. We attempt to scale the growing laundry pile, Mount Killerlaundrero, in search of “relatively” clean clothes since laundry chores have been put on the back burner. We come home late at night to dark houses and sleeping children. When the curtain finally goes up we spend the next 2 to 3 hours trying our damnedest to “leave it all on the stage” – as one of my favorite music director says.
The audience members are varied. Some have friends or family in the show, some are drug by their spouse, some are actors checking out their fellow co-workers or competition, and of course, the most beloved, the “genuine theatre enthusiasts.” They make their investment of time and money to spend the same 2-3 hours sitting comfortably (or uncomfortably, depending on the theatre) in the audience doling out their laughter and/or applause as indication of their approval.
Our reward for those hundreds of hours of work, our reward for those missed social events, our reward for those strained relationships is the audience’s response.
Now don’t get me wrong. We DO get small rewards along the way. We have “Aha!” moments when creating characters and discovering funny moments. We develop lasting friendships and professional relationships that move us forward into other shows. And hopefully, when the stars align, we create something meaningful with each other.
But let’s face it – and let me be blunt – we can’t do it alone. The audience, more specifically, YOU, is just as big of a part of the success or failure of a show as any other facet; sometimes more so. Your laughter calms our nerves and creates a safety net where we feel we can take more risks. Your applause frees our creativity. We feed off your positive energy. Even in the quiet scenes we feel your attention. We sense when it’s waning. We know when you’re paying attention and when you’re nearing your naptime. When you are reactive it quiets the voices in our head telling us not to quit our day job.
In a non-responsive audience I have seen actors pumped full of chutzpah be decimated in the first few minutes of going on-stage. Cues drag, energy dwindles, and self-consciousness rears its ugly head until the once-hopeful production mirrors the seats they are playing to and everything ends in a heap of the doldrums.
I wonder what would have happened on that stage if, instead of the vitality-leaching effect of stillness, someone had just laughed a bit louder. Not much. Just a smidge. An “atta boy” of encouragement. A tip of the hat to those folk who have donated hours of their time to bring a smile to your face. Could that extra clap build upon itself and those around you and spread to that stage resulting in a better performance? Could that audible guffaw create an improved experience for you and the rest of the audience?
You, dear audience member, hold the ultimate power to make or break a performance. You’re like Thor and your laughter is the hammer. So the next time you exit your harried lives to enter the sacred space of make-believe, take a moment to appreciate that you are sitting in a room with like-minded individuals to witness LIVE THEATRE and open your heart to the thespians in front of you. We’re not asking for you to fake an enjoyable experience (or theatorgasm, as I like to call it), but instead to happily accept our invitation to come play with us. Try it out on the next go-round. Let me know the results.
And remember Tinkerbell – if you’re not clapping, she’s dying.