How to be a good audience

Performers train for years and rehearse for weeks. Is it too much to expect a little effort from audiences? Share these tips with your ticket-holders.
How to be a good audience

Image via pixabay.com

If there’s one thing that more than a decade of reviewing theatre and other live performances has taught me, it’s that good art should be prepared for. Reading up about the history of a play, its themes and plot, reviews of previous productions and interviews with the current cast and creative team, are all excellent preparation for an opening night.

Even a modicum of preparation can enrich your experience as an audience member. Surely a few minutes reading is little to ask when the performers have spent years training and weeks rehearsing for this night.

But when was the last time you carefully read the director’s notes or the playwright’s introduction in a program rather than casually flipping through it while waiting for the house lights to dim? Have your ever read the script before seeing a play or at least familiarised yourself with the work’s key themes and characters? Do you seek out opportunities to talk to actors or directors in order to better engage with the theatrical experience that awaits you?

Ask any actor: an engaged audience is a good audience. At one time or another we’ve all been part of an audience where there’s no electricity in the room, making it harder for the actors to deliver a strong performance. Conversely, an audience who are switched on, excited and prepared, rather than sitting passively, waiting to be entertained, will ensure a more dynamic performance. Live performance is a two-way street, and the more energy you give the performers, the more memorable your night out will be.

A great night is not a free ride. Here are some quick tips to help you engage more with a performance, ensuring a better night out for all concerned.

Prepare

You will get so much more out of the work if you know what you are about to see. Theatregoers can prepare for a production by learning what they can about it before the curtain rises. This isn’t to say you should necessarily read a biography of Tennessee Williams before seeing a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but a basic understanding of the playwright’s life and his major, often autobiographical motifs (absentee fathers, aggravating mothers, the destructive impact of society on the non-conformist individual) will certainly add to your enjoyment of such a production. At least know the playwright's country of origin and the period s/he wrote in. Reading (or hopefully re-reading) Shakespeare or Sophocles beforehand will break the language barrier. Even a cursory browse through the Wikipedia entry helps.

Consider the big picture

Liking an art work isn’t just about admiring a painting –  how and where an art work is installed can be just as important as the medium it’s made from and what the work depicts. Similarly, appreciating a performance isn’t just about watching the actors and listening to the dialogue – it’s about understanding how the lighting and sound design enrich or overwhelm a performance and being aware of what an actor’s costume tells you about their character’s psychology. Being conscious of every detail – of blocking, set design, and directorial choices – will give you a deeper connection to a work, and a greater awareness of its strengths and weaknesses.

Give yourself over to the experience

Art is experiential, not just intellectual. Allow yourself to feel the emotions of the work and 'go with' the waves of feeling, especially when watching dance or listening to music. You may find that instead of coming out complaining you 'didn't understand'  you feel enlightened or exposed to a new feeling. Often the intellectual understanding will come after you have slept on it. With a strong work you find insights dawning on you in the days that follow and have a deeper and longer art experience.

Distinguish between liking it and enjoying it

Open yourself to work that makes you feel, whether that feeling is despair, anger or joy. Don't expect  to come away high but rather to come away with a broader or deeper understanding of the world. As theatre critic Cameron Woodhead told ArtsHub last year: ‘The mainstream conflation of art and entertainment seems to have misled people into thinking that art has their best interests at heart, that it’s all just a bit of harmless diversion. It doesn’t, and it isn’t. Most art worthy of the name makes demands of you – sometimes it will break you and re-fashion your view of the world, sometimes it just makes you want to run screaming from the room. The important thing is to be as present and concentrated as you can while experiencing it.’

If you don't like it, understand why

An intelligent response is not a knee-jerk 'like' or 'dislike'. If you are not engaged by a work and can't get swept away by the feeling try to work out why it is failing to connect for you. Is the script clunky or is it the acting or directing? Or are you bringing prejudices or expectations that are inappropriate to the work? Complaining that an absurdist play by Ionesco is 'unrealistic' misses the point. Perhaps you should have read upon absurdism beforehand (see above).

Be theatre-fit 

A short nap after work – even 20 minutes – can be a godsend when embarking on a night at the theatre. Ensuring you’re rested and ready for what’s to come will ensure you get the most out of the evening. If you’re already tired and grumpy when taking your seat in a theatre then you’re starting the night off at a disadvantage. This is one of the reasons matinees exist – and it’s important to remember that booking tickets for an early afternoon performance isn’t a sign of weakness or advancing age: it’s a sign of being self-aware, of knowing your limits and wanting to make the most of a theatrical experience.

Silence is next to godliness

Don’t talk in the theatre – or in a film. Keep your opinions to yourself until the house lights have come up or you’re in the foyer. Avoid rustling wrappers and foods that crunch or crackle. Give away your tickets if you are unwell and are going to cough your way through the performance. And for god’s sake, turn your mobile phone off.

Silence is not enough

Do not use electronic devices even if they are on silent. If you use your phone to check the time or your iPad to make a note during a performance, the glow from your screen can be seen for several rows around you, and will distract people from what’s happening on stage or on screen, breaking their concentration and pulling them out of the moment.


 

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's Committee of Management and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel.

He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Twitter: @richardthewatts