Blackfriars Conference 2015: Colloquy Session I: Audience and the Actor

Good morning, this is Merlyn Q. Sell live blogging from the Tyson Center.  This is Colloquy Session I: Audience and the Actor, running from 9:00am to 10:15am.  This session is chaired by Ralph Alan Cohen and the presenters are Heidi Cephus, Greg Fiebig, Amanda L. Hughes, Henry D. McHenry, Julia Nelson, Brittany Renard, Lisa S. Starks-Estes, and Natalia Razak Wallace.

The session begins with the presenters singing a tribute to Dr. Cohen’s pre-party and requesting audience interaction to complete the final verse.  The audience largely fails to pick up on the rhyme scheme but is engaged none-the-less.

Cohen advises us that the audience is the “third leg” of performance and the importance of thinking about the audience in the theatre and in the classroom.  The presenters have prepared responses to a set of questions regarding the audience and the actor and we’ll begin by hearing those.

Wallace is the first to speak.  Wallace’s interest is focused on the effects of eye-contact between audience and actor.  In researching this topic, Wallace has started looking at neuro-science to discover more about the biology of that contact.  Wallace points out that the current theatrical practice of putting the audience in the dark changes their role from participant to observer, which impacts how their memory of the event is created and stored.

Renard’s work investigates the staging of dismemberment and how that impacts the relationship of the audience to the actor.  She is looking at examples from ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Changeling.  A realistic staging of these moments would have disrupted the audience’s understanding of an actor versus the thing their body parts become.

After working on a book regarding Shakespereare’s use of Ovid, Starks-Estes believes that early modern performance was heavily influenced by Ovidian metamorphosis.  Starks-Estes feels that early modern audience’s knew this and expected this in the theatre.

Nelson is interested in the use of vice in early modern domestic dramas.  The villain can be an avatar for the audience at the beginning as they share in the villain’s plotting.  As the plays continue, through audience interaction with soliloquies, the audience also influences the restoration of moral order.

Cephus speaks about the fleshy impact of performance.  Richard II allows the audience to experience the communion of actor body with historical figures.  As an audience’s loyalty transfers from Richard to Bolingbroke they are physically transformed.  Science backs up the idea that there is a biological impact linked to the act of forgiveness.

McHenry is interested in the audience as commonwealth.  Henry VIII is theatre within theatre as the theatrical audience views the characters perform for each other.  Woolsey’s behavior specifically is observed and commented on by other characters.   The audience is implicated as a commonwealth by joining these characters in observation.

Hughes’ company, Rocket City Shakespeare, is a “resource-driven” company that goes into the audience and requests direct audience interaction within performance.  She links this work to Wallace’s statement regarding leaving the audience in the dark.  Breaking with that tradition has a profound and exciting impact on the audience.

Fiebig is particularly interested in how audience’s construct meaning.  He feels the most important part of performance is that audiences comprehend what is being performed.  Based on a theory by Bernard Pierce, Fiebig finds that within the conversation between actor and audience the audience creates the performance reality.  Considering this, a dialogue between the audience and actor is preferable to the monologue encouraged by proscenium staging.  Fiebig introduces the idea of a “performance afterlife” or the discussions, responses, and impact of a performance after the curtain comes down.

Moving into discussion, Cohen asks the audience to respond to the posters lining the walls and points out that while eye-contact seems to be an integral part of the images, the audience is not included in the images. The presenters then move into a conversation regarding how an audience is taught new play-going conventions. The presenters mostly admit that a curtain speech is the most inefficient, but also an unsatisfactory, solutions.

Cohen brings the discussion back to the ideas of communion and dismemberment brought up by Cephus and Renard respectively. Nelson points out that beautiful theatres often inspire the same awe as a church building. Cohen notes that church-goers understand the expected behavior at churches throughout the world and theatre-goers understand the same thing. Cohen is interested in “the inconvenienced audience” as they experience disruption through dismemberment. Renard responds bringing up Fiebig’s earlier idea of a performance’s “after-life” and how live-tweeting and other technological engagement might influence that. Starks-Estes troubles the consensus that the movie theatre doesn’t allow for audience engagement and points out that the “after-life” may be more extensive for movies. Going back to Cohen’s comment regarding dismemberment, Starks-Estes believes the audience has a pleasurable response to dismemberment because it is so jarring.

Cohen wants to put some pressure on the “afterlife” concept. Wallace’s research has found that eye-contact is one of the most memorable aspects of performance for an ASC audience member. Cohen addresses the idea of muscle memory as audience’s learn and relearn how to experience theatre. Linking to McHenry’s discussion of the audience’s implication in the events of Henry VIII, Cohen points out that the real divorce trial between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon occurred at the Blackfriars, the same space where the play of those events premiered. The audience had to have known that and responded to it accordingly.

Cohen steers the discussion back to Nelson’s idea of vice characters as audience avatar. Cohen wonders how the audience’s alliance with the villain might link to the ideas of metamorphosis and transubstantiation. Nelson believes that through these vice characters the audience is able to experience taboo acts with the safety blanket of knowing that within five acts the moral order will be re-established.

Fiebig asks about Shenandoah Shakespeare Express’ experience in teaching audiences their style of performance. Cohen points out that repetition is key to managing audience expectations. At this point if the ASC turned the lights out it would be just as disruptive as it was to turn the lights on in the first place. Fiebig goes back to the curtain speech and how from a semiotic perspective relying on the curtain speech to guide audience behavior is a crutch. Fiebig mentions Christopher Sly from Taming of the Shrew and Hughes mentions Henry V’s chorus as characters that can be integrated into the audience to assist in directing audience behavior.

Cohen asks for final comments before opening the discussion to the audience. Cephus suggests that the influence of audience’s experiences of prior performances on future performances may be a part of performance afterlife. Fiebig is concerned about the introverts in the audience and admits to his own discomfort as an audience member. The actor has a responsibility to read the audience and respond accordingly. Nelson wonders if the audience self-selects by choosing their seats.

McHenry turns to the audience but is met with discontent by an audience member responding to the fact that the audience has been literally seated outside the discussion. She also echoes the idea that the audience exercises a choice in choosing particular seats, theatrical companies, and their own engagement with the performance.

Cohen throws it back to Wallace for the final word as promised. Wallace reiterates her ideas that eye-contact biologically impacts the audience’s recognition that they are human, just like the actor speaking to them.

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