Last weekend my husband and I drove into Missouri where my son, who teaches chemistry at a community college south of St. Louis, had a bit part in their production of Grease playing the Frankie Avalon role of Teen Angel. This was his first time on the acting stage (he’s certainly not shy and is accustomed to performing in public as he is the drummer for a local blues band). He did a bang-up job and I was one proud Mama.
Watching him on stage I was reminded of my own experiences in high school and community theatre plays. I auditioned in the tenth grade for Dobie Gillis landing a very small part where another actor and I were to walk across the stage. We played high school students walking down the hall and one of the other ‘student’s on the stage was supposed to say something as my cue. However during my debut performance she forgot her line and not knowing what else to do I continued walking until I was off-stage. Still. I had been under those lights in front of an audience and the entire experience was FUN.
My next role was that of Little Rosie in My Son the Exorcist (yes, my high school years coincided with a similarly named box-office hit and so there you are). I wore a pink polka-dotted dress and my face, arms and legs were painted green. I growled and swayed and threw myself at the ankles of leading man Dave Winters, pretending to bite him as he dragged me across the floor of the stage. Certainly not high drama but again it was fun.
The only other experience I had in high school theatre was when Sue Levad and I, not being at all musically inclined, were given the opportunity to participate nonetheless as student directors for the fall production of South Pacific during my senior year. We had a very talented cast and I thoroughly enjoyed the singing, the dancing and the camaraderie of being involved in a high school musical. I recall with much fondness the incredible feeling backstage, the giddiness and laughter as we all watched Dave Schaefer burst onto the stage in his grass skirt and coconut ‘brassiere’. It was exciting, it was thrilling and it is probably one of my best memories from high school.
After high school I performed in a number of Brickstreet Theater productions in our small home town: The Mousetrap, God’s Favorite, She Was Only a Farmer’s Daughter, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and several others whose names I have since forgotten. Forest City is a tiny hamlet in north central Iowa (home of Winnebago Industries!) and only occasionally would we have any newcomers showing up for auditions. I rarely played any lead characters and if I’m honest was probably only mediocre at best. But I was one of those few regulars to audition each time and I gave as good as I got.
Aside from learning about staging and costuming and character development the biggest take-away from all of my theatre experiences is what I call the psychology of the audience. No matter how prepared you are or how well everyone on stage memorizes their lines there is no way to predict how the audience will react to what’s happening up there under the lights.
That first night of South Pacific when the audience howled with appreciation to Dave’s grass-skirted gyrations led us to expect the same reaction during the next performance. Except that it never happened. I remember the sense of expectation and waiting for that same euphoria we’d experienced on opening night. But it was flat somehow. How could that be? Why didn’t the audience react the same way?
Later, in other plays put on by Brickstreet Theater, we learned to pause briefly at expected ‘laugh lines’ only to discover during some performances that the laughs never came. On the flip side the audience would laugh uproariously at places we never expected. This was weird. I didn’t understand it but I learned to accept that this is just how it is and as an actor you have to be ready to roll with the punches.
The psychology of the audience isn’t just limited to live theatre. Perhaps you’ve experienced it too? I looked forward to seeing the film Men in Black because I’d heard it was really good. The theatre was packed but hardly anyone – at all – reacted to it. I walked out of there not at all impressed. Actually I hated it. I suspect others had the same reaction. The same thing happened when we went to one of the Spiderman films. Admittedly this wasn’t a movie I would have gone to on my own but we were with other family members and that was their choice. Again the entire theatre just sat there and many of the supposed sight gags and one-liners literally fell on deaf ears. It was a horrible movie-going experience and I could not wait for the film to end.
Of course audience psychology goes the other way too and can help to make the whole experience fun and enjoyable. My husband and I went to The Others a few years ago. This Nicole Kidman film is a dark, tension-filled thriller and at one point the entire full house gasped and jumped in their seats. Then, in a spirit of camaraderie, we all laughed in unison at having been spooked collectively. I thoroughly enjoyed that film.
The ultimate audience participation film, Rocky Horror, is a favorite of mine. And yet I have only ever watched it in the comfort of my own living room. Still I love it for the music, the campiness, the quirkiness and the fun (and of course Tim Curry!). I can only imagine what the psychology of the audience would be like to see it as many claim is the only way to watch it: in the theater with other crazy fans all around you. Perhaps sometime I’ll take in a midnight showing!
Now when I go to a live performance or to see a movie I pay attention to how the audience is responding and I try to evaluate what’s going on ‘up there’ on its own merits and not let my reaction be corralled by the audience’s reaction (or non-reaction). Still though when a production is solid and the actors are good having the other audience members there with you for the ride helps to make for a more memorable experience overall.