Wake-Up Workshop #4: Asides and Audience Contact

A fine Saturday morning to you all. Cass Morris here from 8-8:45am to liveblog the fourth and final Wake-Up Workshop of the 4th Blackfriars Conference. Sarah Enloe, the ASC’s Director of Education, will be presenting on Asides and Audience Contact.

Enloe begins by discussing how, as a high school teacher participating in an NEH Institute, she learned about the ASC’s methods of audience contact, and knew immediately that she wanted to use it in her classroom — but wasn’t sure how to implement the ideas effectively. ASC Education, with the help of ASC Actor Ben Curns, developed this method to help teachers think through the various approaches and opportunities.

Enloe asks if anyone knows when the word “aside”, as we currently think of it, first appears, and when no one does, she explains that it’s more than 150 years after Shakespeare’s time. The term appears only twice in Shakespeare, and never with that precise meaning. She prefaces that the group will explain the different kinds of asides that Curns helped ASC Education identify, and will then work through a scene together to identify character choices.

The first method of audience contact is casting the audience. Enloe gives examples of the audience serving as Henry V’s army, as the plebs of Rome, or as Portia’s suitors in The  Merchant of Venice. She points out how Shakespeare not only writes these opportunities into the plays, he also writes in opportunities to return to that audience reference later in the scene or the play. Casting the audience gives the audience member a specific role inside the world of the play.

The second way that we identify audience contact is that of the visual aide. Enloe notes that this can be a difficult distinction for students sometimes, as it has some similarities to casting. The difference is that, rather than bestowing an identity, the visual aide uses something that the audience member already is — generally a physical attribute, something they’re wearing, or something else essential to their own identities, used as an illustration. Enloe uses the example of perhaps casting a man and woman sitting next to each other as an adulterous couple. Auditor Michael Hendry notes that he has been the bald-pated man used as an example in The Comedy of Errors. Enloe notes the favorite example of her co-worker (yours truly): Benedick’s “One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another is…. virtuous… yet I am well,” with the actor picking out a fair and wise woman, but unable to find a virtuous one in the audience.

The third example, which Enloe notes as particularly obvious in characters like Iago and Richard III, is that of allying with the audience. Many characters who get a lot of time alone on-stage with the audience use this to get the audience on their side — and quite often, those characters are the villains. This can also be an example of the character letting the audience in on a secret or providing them with clarifying information.

The fourth way that Enloe identifies audience contact is seeking information. Enloe gives an example of Curns as Polonius in the ASC’s 2011 Hamlet asking an audience member, “By the mass, what was I about to say?” and notes that Curns often got two examples: the terror of “eighth-graders frozen in the headlights”, or the graduate students able to provide the correct answer. She gives another example from Hamlet (this time the Q1, when Curns was playing Hamlet), from the moment when Claudius is on his knees praying, and Hamlet enters, asking, “Should I kill him now?” When Curns took this to teenage boy sitting on a gallant school, the boy replied, “Absolutely, he must die”. In that moment, the actor discovers that Shakespeare in fact wrote in the answer to that question in the rest of the monologue.

Enloe then addresses the probability that someone in the audience is asking how we know that Shakespeare really did write these opportunities into the plays intentionally, and she uses an example from Henry VI, Part 1 to illustrate how, in that early play, Shakespeare actually pokes fun of the convention of audience contact in a conversation between Margaret and Suffolk. Enloe notes that as proof in the text that Shakespeare is thinking about that convention.

Enloe then discusses the possibility that almost any line could be taken to the audience — but that not all of them should be. She suggests letting students go all-out with every possibility at first, then reining them back in so that we don’t lose the connections between the characters. The group then discusses some of the challenges in audience contact, including how to deal with unexpected contributions from the audience. Enloe notes that some of our actors acknowledge everything, and uses the example of Gregory Jon Phelps responding to sneezes or particularly loud laughs.

Moving on to scenework, Enloe hands out the first fifty lines of Julius Caesar. Enloe explains that this worksheet has the four types of audience contact listed at the top, along with the fifth option of actually speaking to a scene partner. Enloe divides the room into three groups, assigning one group responsibility for Flavius, one for the Carpenter and Cobbler, and one for Murellus. She then gives the auditors a few minutes to work through the text, assigning modes of audience contact to each moment for each character.

Each group sends an avatar to the stage to walk through the scene. Enloe notes that the opening stage direction, Enter Flavius and Murellus and Certain Commoners over the stage, is a little odd and cites Dessen & Thomson’s Dictionary of Stage Directions as to what “over the stage” might mean. They take the first suggestion for the Carpenter and Cobbler to enter from the back, through the audience, though Enloe notes that we generally don’t allow that in our Playhouse since there is no evidence of it occurring in the period.

The first decision has the Flavius taking all of “Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home: / Is this a holiday? what! know you not, / Being mechanical, you ought not walk / Upon a labouring day without the sign / Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?” to the audience. The group discusses whether the final question, answered in the play, can appropriately be asked of an audience member. Enloe notes that, at Julius Caesar‘s first performance at the Theatre or the Globe, the audience would in fact have been full of idle creatures who were skivving off work. The group has, sadly, run out of time to run the rest of the scene, but Enloe notes that you can see, through just that little bit, how much audience contact can change the play.