When we go to the theatre, what do we expect? Do we have a responsibility? Witness First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee thinks so.
A while ago, I went to a matinee of Bell Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. I was told by the usher to head down the aisle and turn right. For some reason – I’m blaming a lack of coffee – I turned left when I went down that aisle. Whoops.
Anyway, that row of seats was inhabited by a massive clump of middle-aged women, with a gap in the middle where I assumed my seat was. “I’m so sorry, but I really need to squeeze past,” I said apologetically to the woman in the aisle seat. She looked at me like I’d just shat in her lap. I’m not even joking. “Look, I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’m gonna need you to let me through.”
I squeezed past about eight women, most of whom refused to move their legs or their bags as I shuffled past. When I reached my seat, I checked my ticket and realised that I was actually in the seat on the other side of the aisle. I looked back the way I had come at the grumpy group of women melodramatically rearranging themselves and muttering to one another at the inconvenience of having to deal with my outrageous behaviour, and sighed.
It was like something out of a film. I’ve never had so many audaciously rude people bitch and moan at my presence. I actually didn’t mind inconveniencing them twice.
Once I found my seat, I relaxed and waited for the show to start. This was the second time I saw this production and there was a huge difference between the reception of this performance, compared to the Friday night my partner and I attended. Friday’s was a responsive audience, who laughed at all the Shakespeare-y jokes and seemed happy to be there. On this occasion, those cranky patrons in that particular row of seats were just a forerunner of what was to come. I’m hoping they were all hungover, because otherwise there’s no excuse for being shit audience members when you’re watching talents like this. Lord knows, the tickets cost too much to be going to the theatre for a bad time.
When I was performing in State Theatre of South Australia’s production of Top Girls, there were nights where we’d get whoops from the audience. On other nights, you could actually hear snoring in the front row, usually from the husband whose wife had dragged him along. I understand that various audiences and various responses are part of the nature of performing arts. But whatever happened to getting along to the theatre and giving the experience a chance?
Because I grew up in small country towns, we didn’t get many opportunities to see theatre. I didn’t see proper shows until I was about 20 and had moved to Adelaide for uni. Perhaps it’s the country girl in me, but I still have that expectation of excitement when I go to see live performances. I’m not asking everyone to bust out their Sunday best and to laugh at absolutely everything, but I’m wondering where that enthusiasm goes. Is it just that people attend the theatre for a token cultural event? Do they see theatre subscription tickets as some kind of social status symbol and nothing more? Because some of the people filling the seats in these auditoriums look miserable as fuck, and it seems that they have made up their mind that they’re going to stay that way, regardless of the performance before them.
Of course, sometimes even the most enthusiastic theatre-goer can be less-than-engaged. Sometimes a show is just awful. And sometimes too some productions aren’t straightforward about what they’re offering, which can alienate audience members. We’ve all been in the audience of a tedious production of an absurdist play where the humour isn’t for everyone, or something that is programmed for the straight, white middle-class that leaves a lot of the rest of us in the dark. Playwrights such as Neil LaBute and David Williamson, for example, have made it a priority to write stories through a narrow straight white lens.
I understand there may be exceptions, but there shouldn’t be required reading before you go to see a show. A performance isn’t a lecture: performers, writers and theatremakers have an obligation to not only entertain, but to guide audiences through a story that, chances are, they’ve never heard before.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of if you aren’t familiar with Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, or other classic playwrights. It’s not a bad thing if you don’t understand the humour of melodrama, pantomime or absurdist theatre and, more importantly, even the meaning of those words. Some of us (I am often guilty of this) forget that most people haven’t made the performing arts a central part of their lives, and drop terms like absurdism, Brechtian, proscenium, and the dreaded mise en scène because this is part of our normal-speak. We need to remember that some people have lives that have nothing to do with performance, and that they shouldn’t have to google what you just said to them.
Sometimes, however, the issue is the audience members. When people come in with preconceived expectations of a performance, it creates a problematic lens through which they interpret the things they see on stage. For example, if people haven’t had much interaction or seen many representations of Indigenous characters other than unfavourable media portrayals and racist stereotypes, this affects how they might choose the view characters of this ethnicity on the stage. Academic Maryrose Casey talks about “frames”[i], exploring how preconceived notions, assumptions and upbringing affect audiences’ reactions to the unknown. There’s a kind of character-jading that happens to people through their experiences, which conditions how they perceive the theatre they see.
If people associate children’s theatre with bright colours and loud noises, they might be pleasantly taken aback by the intimacy of Slingsby Theatre Company’s intimate shows. If audiences head into Indigenous theatre expecting to see fellas in lap-laps, and discover, holy shit! these are people with jobs, heartaches, and full and complex lives, it can make people feel like they’ve been oddly robbed of an experience they expected. Perhaps some people go to Shakespeare expecting to see swords, corsets, tights and white people, but instead are met with a diverse cast in a modern setting. These expectations of performance and theatre are problematic, because the flexibility, versatility and integrity of story are important parts of live performance.
This means that theatre companies have a responsibility to audiences. They have an obligation to use and honour the space in its traditional function, as a place of ceremony. Theatre companies have a responsibility to tell the stories we need to hear, to know what will make us laugh, cry, feel angry and think, while also finding work that will reflect or challenge the times we’re living in.
The ways in which theatre companies curate stories for the public also determine how audiences are going to leave the theatre. While theatre companies should ensure important stories are staged, audiences have the responsibility of appreciating the integrity of stories. We should respect the opportunities that performance gives to people who don’t often have the opportunity to be heard. La Mama is one of these places that offers an open door: so many theatre-makers began their journey there. We need to cherish these pure places. And mainstream theatre companies need to rediscover that magic within themselves.
In my PhD I’ve been exploring the idea of performance as an act of ceremony, of ritual. Something that is to be experienced not only by audiences, but by the performers on stage holding them (sometimes) in the palm of their hand.
As a marginalised person – sometimes because of my race, sometimes because of my gender, or my age or class – I have a long history of people not wanting to listen to me when I have something to say. I’ve had to yell extra loud because I’ve got to prove my worth more than most people. I’ve always had to fight to be here, and a lot of the time I’ve had to scream my truths of discrimination alone. I can’t describe the feeling of being on stage portraying a character who has something to say, and feeling that beautiful, pregnant silence singing in the dark. Knowing that you’re being heard is the most wonderful feeling. It’s something that so many people take for granted.
During my time writing for Witness, I’ve learned about the importance of letting yourself be open to what is being presented before you, of allowing yourself to be vulnerable. When I first moved to Adelaide, I had a bunch of expectations about what theatre was supposed to look like. Then I went and saw my first show, Love by Patricia Cornelius, directed by Catherine Fitzgerald. It was the first time I’d seen nudity on stage, and women revelling in not having to be beautiful, and I loved it. Anni Lindner portraying the role of Tanya was grotesque and unapologetic, and influenced the roles I hoped to play. Do the same audiences who go to see Cornelius’ brutal plays also go see Shakespeare and Sarah Kane? I hope so.
For me, attending the Keir Choreographic Award performances at Dancehouse expanded my ideas about what the word “dance” really means. I had a limited idea of dance, and when I saw unfamiliar movements, or interactive pieces, I separated myself as an audience member, because this was a mode I was simply not used to. I was used to seeing ballet-esque movements, or Aboriginal corroboree-like performances, so I was taken aback to see gyrating performances, sexual engagement with objects and audience participation. It was a real eye-opener. It’s the same with all performance: we need to be aware of how various it is. Our responsibility as audiences is allowing ourselves to be changed.
Recent events such as the fire at La Mama, and the passing of the wonderful actor and pivotal community member Tom E. Lewis, hit home for me how the nature of live art is very temporary. Being present with people is something we take for granted. These wonderful performers, stories and places aren’t always going to be there.
Although performances are something that we need to take the time to appreciate, we’re not always going to like what they have to tell us. But if you allow yourself to experience something outside your comfort zone, if you take the time to really listen, and it still doesn’t work out, it’s not a disaster. Not every invitation is for us. If you pay attention, chances are you’ll still walk away with something to think about. Even if it’s just about how awful the show was, you’ll be able to wonder why.
When I interviewed the creative director for Slingsby Andy Packer for last month’s article, he said that the company’s vision was to make it so that when people want to be together, they came to the theatre. He felt that the the conversations on the way home were equally as important as the show itself. If you’re like me, and you also enjoy going to the theatre on your own, there can also be a quiet enjoyment in solitude. You get an hour or two to sit in the dark and be present with some people who have stories to tell you, secrets to share, emotions to express, who are inviting you to understand. And that’s a privilege.
[i] Casey, Maryrose. Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre 1967-1990. Univ. of Queensland Press, 2004.