“The audience is the most revered member of the theater […] They are our guests, fellow players, and the last spoke in the wheel which can then begin to roll. They make the performance meaningful.”Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater. A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Third Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. p.13
One of the simplest definitions of theatre is a person performing in a space in front of others: without the integral component of our audience, one could argue, that we would be essentially endlessly rehearsing. Especially in a mode as impermanent and collaborative as improv, the Audience takes on an even more critical role, donning numerous hats and functions in the shared moment of spontaneous creation. From source of inspiration or active participant, to communal partner, supportive patron or honored witness, the function can vary widely from venue to venue. But regardless of their assigned or discovered role(s), their presence makes the whole theatrical affair meaningful.
I’ve directed and created works for professional, academic and community markets and often think about how I am or how I could be better serving my varied audiences. Here are some current themes I’ve been contemplating.
Contracts We Could/Should Have With Our Audiences
1.) We should play at the top of our intelligence (and aim higher). Most improv schools of thought promote this approach to the craft although, if I were to be candid, I’m not sure that it is always consciously and rigorously encouraged and practiced. While it is incumbent upon us as artists to create material that will entice attendance, I think it’s similarly incumbent upon us to use our positions on the stage in a thoughtful way even if we’re “just” trying to entertain. The most accessible crowd-pleasing improv still exists in the context of our current political landscape. (See my more detailed thoughts on the subject of politics and improv here.) I imagine that most of us working in more entertainment-focused modes are guilty of grabbing at some easy laughs, but we can also (or simultaneously) instill our improv with intelligence and care. Furthermore, if we are striving as artists to continually become more informed and aware of the issues and tensions in the world around us, then we are better equipped to knowingly reflect these realities back to our assembled guests. Some forms of improv are unabashedly pedagogic or radical in this sense, but I would posit that even the most seemingly benign short-form game can serve as an opportunity for astute observation.
2.) We should strive to reflect and represent our communities. One of the gifts of improvisation is that is tends to make the tools of performance more readily available. For practitioners such as Augusto Boal, Viola Spolin and Jonathan Fox, this is a primary element of their practices, but many “mainstream” improv companies embrace amateurs and new voices in a way that scripted theatre cannot due to the constraints of the script and the highly hierarchical nature of scripted rehearsal processes. This is not to say that improvisational performance can’t also be highly polished and professional, providing artworks that display careful crafting and practice, but companies often house multiple shows, ensembles and performance opportunities. In addition to welcoming diverse audiences into our auditoriums, our craft benefits enormously from welcoming this same diversity onto our stages. We all crave to hear our stories told and see ourselves represented. We are more likely as a company to truly represent our communities if we are performing with and amongst them rather than merely for them.
3.) We should balance what our audience wants with what we find of value. I create for a variety of companies and production situations and so my works are not always subject to the same financial pressures of the box office. In my free admission campus work, for example, we can take the risk of working on some projects that are a more unabashedly about artistic development and exploration. When I craft pieces as part of a subscription season, I need to be aware that “regular” theatre goers will typically want something that looks a little more polished and akin to other scripted plays and musicals that are programmed in the same season. When I’m commissioned or invited to create works for professional or revenue-dependent partners, the need for having a sense of currently successful practices and programming looms larger. But in each of these instances, there should be a fruitful artistic tension between what we believe an audience will find joyful and what excites, intrigues and inspires us as improvisational artists. Audience-pleasing work can quickly alienate or dishearten the company if they don’t feel that this product is sufficiently challenging and artistically rewarding. Similarly, artist-pleasing work can quickly fold if it cannot find a way to attract and maintain audiences. We should also keep in mind that an audience cannot know that they might like something different if we do not invest the time in exposing them strategically to new forms and approaches. It’s all a matter of balance.
4.) We should nurture environments free from belligerence. Whether belligerence or animosity is flowing amongst the players, within the audience, or between the stage and house, we should be attentive to addressing mis-steps and inappropriate conduct. Audiences should not be subjected to offensive material or representations without candid acknowledgement and redress. This may be framed “playfully” or “lightly” in the moment, but it should be clear that a flag of spontaneity is not being used as a cover for ignorant or reckless content. Similarly, fellow audience members should be held to reasonable codes of conduct as well. Allowing an insensitive, prejudiced or bigoted suggestion to go unchecked can send loud messages to those who share our spaces and will quickly erode trust. As onstage improvisers we are gatekeepers whether we embrace this role or not, and we should take this responsibility seriously as we seek to grow and honor our audiences. This commitment to appropriate communication and content should also clearly apply to our educational programs and administrations as well.
5.) We should allow for mistakes while striving for improvement. Embracing failure and mistakes is an important part of the improvisational ethos, and while my observations above stress accountability, we should also seek an environment that leaves room for stumbles and subsequent growth. I would offer there is a marked difference between a audience member yelling out an obscene or deliberately divisive suggestion or comment, and an uniformed patron using uninterrogated or lazy cliches or tropes. In my opinion, the former should most likely be escorted from the theatre, while the latter might invite an opportunity to gently educate or inform. Similarly, there is a stark contrast between a player who routinely assumes stereotypical or demeaning characterizations, and an over-eager neophyte whose anxiousness gets the better of them with an off-hand comment or simplistic portrayal. In my opinion, the former should most likely be escorted from the theatre, while the latter might invite an opportunity to gently educate or inform.
This entry became a little more serious and pedantic than I had perhaps initially intended, but I think we should be extremely wary of taking our relationship with our audiences for granted. I think it’s important that improvisational practitioners show care in how they craft and frame improv events so as to maximize connections with and between audience members. As Spolin notes, they are what makes the art of improv meaningful. For those of us who have explored internet-based performance opportunities in recent months, that reality – as we’re faced with the silence and coldness of our computer cameras and screens – could not have been made more vitally clear and resonant.
And on a simpler note, make sure you graciously accept compliments from your audiences when you are fortunate enough to receive them. Nobody want to give a performer praise only to have it awkwardly dismissed or ignored!
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