Tunapost 5: the exquisite communion

Packed house tonight, and the late-comers were loopy. Several tipsy ladies sat in seats that were almost on stage with us. In the opening moments of the play, two of them chatted audibly before getting up and leaving. Good riddance, I thought, except they came back. When I returned to their end of the theatre as Leonard, I again heard them audibly chatting. I mean, they were three feet away from me. I had one of those extreme “split screen” experiences actors have, when half of you is executing the part – the lines coming out of my mouth etc – and the other half is asking myself, when do I tell them to shut up? Then, as if I had been possessed, I turn to them as Leonard and say something sweet like, “Now, ladies, your gonna have to keep it quiet ’cause we’re on the air and the microphones are going to pick up everything you’re saying.” They looked at me shocked, then laughed and said sorry, and I continued. I learned later, though, that they picked up again when I moved away and other audience members were trying to get them to shut up.

At intermission, I saw what our stage manager is like when she gets steamed. Look out. She went out to the lobby to back up the house manager, who had told the ladies that they couldn’t behave that way any more. Predictably, the ladies (and I am now using that word ironically), threw a fit and wanted their money back. When the second act began, they were gone. There was a palpable sense of relief in the house, like when a loud drunk is removed from a bar, and everyone is free to have fun again. Vera and the Rev. rocked. Then, at the end, when I usually ad lib a few things to cover John’s final change, asking him about the “lost news”, I said” “Maybe the drunk chicks took it.” There was a moment of silence, then a collective gasp, then a roar of laughter, which required me standing still and John to wait off stage for it to subside before he entered. I turned to the audience and smiled and the giant laugh crested. When we came out for our bow a few moments later many in the audience stood.

Driving home, I was reminded of a performance of Taming of the Shrew last spring (see this blog post), when I had a less elaborate but equally comic connection to the audience. And it made me think about the pit in the Globe 500 plus years ago, when I believe the connection between audience and actor was this alive and spontaneous all the time. Have we – audience and actors – grown too fond of being so separate? I wonder about the emergence of the director in our art, who made the stage a place of gloriously organized images, which are witnessed best at a distance. It feels to me like my audience, for the most part, doesn’t want to be at a distance anymore. They want to be connected to us, included by us. The want to be implicated in the event they are witnessing, giving them a more active kind of participation. And this active participation of audience, this inclusion – which is what Greater Tuna thrives on – is also what sets theatre apart from film and T.V., in which the audience can never be “touched” by a performer.

Susan is performing in the holiday panto at People’s Light right now, which is another form which invites audience/actor connection. She has felt frustrated at times by what she feels is a directorial reluctance to give the actors the freedom they need to make spur of the moment judgment calls about audience interaction. Is it because this kind of spontaneous invention – like the one I had as Leonard tonight – cannot be directed that some directors fear it? Is it because it is at the center of the actor’s power, the power to bring an audience more deeply into a collective experience? I watched Madi move from a fairly strong position against having us relate with the audience too much early on in rehearsal, to one where, by previews, she was encouraging us to look for opportunities during the scenes where it makes sense. She even gave me an ad lib to use as Pearl which gets one of my most reliable laughs now.

What is it that makes a theatrical experience successful? I submit it is the exquisite communion between performer and audience – almost erotic in explosive power sometimes – which defines that success. When an audience has been taken along by the actors, whether in comedy or drama, even flaws in writing are overcome. And it is only in the living event of theatre (or dance) that this can happen. But (and I risk tooting my own horn here, but it’s my blog, so deal with it), it takes actors of skill and experience to pull it off. The only way the audience tonight could have a good time with us, was that they sensed John’s and my confidence in what we were doing. Even with the chattering drunk chicks, which could have made everyone feel tense and un-funny, John and I managed to make everyone feel safe, first by acknowledging what was happening, then by playing with it.

Sort of lesson for life, it seems to me.