"All Stage World:
Audience Training for Early Modern Plays"
by Jeremy Fiebig,
Fayetteville State University
(December 2016 Issue / PDF)
In a production of Twelfth Night I directed for Waldorf College a few years ago, members of the cast roamed about the audience before the show hawking Clementine oranges and a few other concessions and encouraging the audience to toss their orange peels on the floor. Part of the audience took the cue and, in a matter of minutes, littered the stage floor and seating areas with peels. Other audience members saved their peels—in piles, some of them—and distracted themselves (and others) by tossing a peel onto the stage now and then as the play went on. Interestingly, they threw these peels at each other and at some of our actors. The vast majority of what I’ll call the most “aggressive” peel chucking was directed at the character in the play one would expect to receive the most ire—Malvolio. What is more, Clementine peels became the vehicle through which the audience played its part, joining Toby and the others in mocking Malvolio. The audience came to regret, or at least muse upon, their treatment of the steward as, in the final scene, they were as guilty of Malvolio’s harangued state as was Toby or Feste. An ACT-ivated audience in this case empathized–took part or rather took a part—not just sympathized.
The notion of taking part in the early modern play is one that certainly holds value for the contemporary theatre practitioner who seeks to combat, or even possibly manipulate, a perceived staleness in modern performances of early modern plays. This practitioner seeks to awaken the modern audience, slumbering in the conventions of Victorian audience configuration and etiquette and dampened by a belief that the early modern play, or more often its language, is patently irrelevant. She confronts an audience that is increasingly untrained in conventional human interaction, let alone the theatrical kind, one that has traded conversation for text messaging and email, and making friends at a dinner party for “friending” on Facebook. The audience is becoming untrained in the arts of reading body language while learning how to properly decipher the emotional subtext of a Tweet or a status update. The audience demands now, not then. Instant messaging means instant gratification and has trained the audience not only to favor the present, but to disregard the past. The practitioner may think she needs to combat the idea that the early modern play is old, quaint, static, overly academic, stuffy, or simply just boring. In order to overcome the perception and reality of irrelevance in the early modern play performance, the audience must be trained to take part in the performance, to interact with—and as—the play. The result of such training may be that the audience becomes a kind of early modern one: rude, shifty, noisy, uncontrolled, and one that, in equal measure with the text and performance, stages the world of the play. Such an approach envisions the play as Tiffany Stern does: “a site of a battle between audience and playwright for attention…a theatrical event of which the play was an element” (48).
Audience training emerges from this need to activate a passive and withdrawn audience, taking its cue from the demands of early modern plays themselves as well as from the active, sometimes volatile, nature of early modern audiences. In many respects, the nature of the audience and its role in the theatrical event is at the heart of our understanding of the early modern performance. Shakespeare’s plays-within-plays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Hamlet depict a chaotic environment in which the players and audience break from the play on multiple occasions, sometimes with the audience members expressing outright hostility to the players over their performances or the quality of the piece itself. The event of going to see a performance of Julius Caesar, for example, in 1598 or 1599 could have incorporated a broad array of peripheral entertainments such as dumb shows, sword fights, clowning, music, jigs, and other dances, adding to the sense of hyperactivity-at-play (pun intended). Andrew Gurr paints a picture of the playgoing experience that was a highly sensorial one of sunshine or rain or winter weather, ornate carvings and sconces, candlelight, background noise, refreshments such as apples, nuts, water, and bottle-ale, the “stench” of patrons’ garlicky breath, perfume, or tobacco smoke, and colorful and lavish clothing both on stage and among the audience (45). Tiffany Stern, in her Second Blackfriars Conference keynote, later published as “Taking Part,” acknowledges a number of features unique to the indoor playhouse at Blackfriars, including the “exuberant” display of clothing, the prominence of the feather on and off stage, and the haze and smell of smoke, each contributing to an atmosphere that evoked feeling or that was “romantic” (46-47). Most compelling is Stern’s connection of these features from the playhouse to the play texts themselves. Stern fascinatingly argues the connection of this atmosphere to a new aesthetic in Shakespeare’s later plays, which involves “assemblages of different varieties of ‘entertainments’ – song, dance, musical interlude, poetic moment, dialogue, jest, stage effect, procession, theophany” (47). Stern posits that the “play world thus extends out into the whole building: in a sense everything that happened in the Blackfriars building was part of the entertainment, part of, in a larger sense, the ‘play’.” The early modern playgoing event was an interactive, hyperactive, multi-sensory experience that called upon the audience’s continual and dynamic response (Lopez, 38). Jeremy Lopez contends that early modern playing companies “built and maintained followings by continually increasing the demands their plays made on their audiences’ attention, thus creating audiences that could handle those demands” (55). Though Lopez’s survey is almost exclusively focused on textual conventions, I argue that the logic applies to contextual ones such as architecture, lighting, etc. So the aim of the practitioner is not limited merely to reconstituting an interactive environment in the playhouse, but also to developing a kind of “early modern brand” that results in a sort of financial and artistic perpetuity. Audience training seeks on some level to cultivate an environment where such dynamic, hyperactive, and phenomenal response is possible in today’s audience, taking the primary work of Gurr and Stern and asking of it the quintessential theatrical question: “what if?” In no small way, audience training considers the given circumstances of the play (a very modern, very Stanislavskian notion), to be more than what is expressly on the page, and considers the forces and contexts that created the play in equal measure with the play itself.
As practitioners approach audience training, then, they can work to emphasize the incongruent, plural nature of a play’s own features and of the early modern playgoing event. Taking their cue from the early modern playhouse, practitioners can design an early modern atmosphere, incorporating the noisy and smelly selling of concessions, the lighting of incense or other odors, and by amplifying the sound and visibility of theatrical business. Audiences can be encouraged to misbehave. They can be offered alcohol as part of encouragement to “loosen up.” They can be induced to action and interplay. An audience that is induced to laugh at or revel with the tradesmen engaged in the Lupercal celebrations at the outset of Julius Caesar is immediately an engaged audience, and one that may abandon its own expectations, including that of a “pure” genre or an unremarkable text. The audience caused to pay attention by cheering or clapping or laughing becomes part of the commotion called for at the play’s outset. The audience is hyperactive and by being so is in on the joke, is self-reflexive, watching and taking part in the “infinite variety.” A hyperactive audience reflects the hyperactivity called for in Julius Caesar’s Lupercal celebrations, in the mob reacting to Brutus and Antony’s speeches, and in other hyperactive moments, such as Benedick hiding conspicuously in the orchard, or of the carousing drunkards in Twelfth Night, or of the Capulet banquet, and of the overall playgoing event, adding to and compounding its own stimuli, increasing the demands it places on itself, and serving to “reflect” or “self-reflect” the play’s hyperactive and phenomenal nature. At the heart of audience training, then, is the audience’s understanding that it causes the event to take place, and not merely by its presence.
What has emerged as the preeminent means of cultivating this “infinite variety” is the “original practices” movement, which seeks to employ any number of early modern staging or environmental practices as a means of illuminating early modern plays in performance. Original practices companies such as the American Shakespeare Center (ASC), the Actor’s Theatre of New Jersey, The New American Shakespeare Tavern, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, Maryland Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare’s Globe in London (at least under the artistic directorship of Mark Rylance), and Sweet Tea Shakespeare, each implement an approach that seeks to recreate the environment in which plays took place in hopes of fostering audience interaction. Techniques for training the audiences by way of these original practices varies greatly, even within the context of one company or one show. Even so, an original practices “canon” has emerged, that serves to train the audience: universal lighting, the notion that actors and audience are lit throughout the performance and thereby interact with each other to a greater degree; thrust staging or audience seating on the stage, which fosters greater interaction between actor and audience; the doubling of actors across multiple roles; cross-gender casting; and live (or lively) music during a pre-show or intermission sequence (Menzer, 99). A methodology for audience training based on these original practices takes shape around four basic principles of early modern performance:
- The audience must be purposefully stimulated, or induced to participate; a lit audience is one that is more likely to interact.
- The event allows for self-reflexivity among the audience; the audience knows it is the audience and that it has a part to play.
- The event must have variety of all sorts, and therefore will appeal to multiple senses and sensibilities, often at once (Lopez. 33-34).
- The result of audience training is a kinetic, aural, and active response in the audience.
Confined to silence, stillness, and darkness at most contemporary theatres, the audience trained by the original practices approach finds themselves in a startling and enlivening new role: an early modern audience or, at least, its contemporary placeholder. Original practices productions are generally quite lively, in part because the approach breaks so many of today’s theatre rules. The audience, freed from the entrapments of customary audience configuration and etiquette, and spurred to action by a sense of historical authenticity or merely because the experience is so different from other productions, becomes noisy, or more willing to laugh, or more willing to gasp. In short, the audience engages more and more easily with the play.
While audience training begins in the original practices movement, training methods may extend to the limits of and beyond the confines of the movement itself. While some original practices, such as universal lighting or thrust staging, allow for more interaction, today’s audiences are not necessarily inclined, for the various reasons described above, to take advantage of this permission as they were in the early modern period—at least not in historically congruent ways. If audiences are to take up the active role of their predecessors, today’s companies must engage a methodology for further inducing the audience to respond: permission does not lower all, or even most, inhibitions. And so original practices companies may employ a number of non-historical methods for training the audience that serves as means to the same end. Training today’s audiences to inhabit the role of their early modern predecessors is a careful negotiation of history and preference, and of experimentation and orthodoxy, which builds off of these practices, but is not bound by them.
All the same, any notion of “training” or “re-educating” the audience suggests that those engaged in original practices embrace some sort of behaviorist, if not fascist, means to an interactive end. As a means of purging modern audience behavioral conventions, audience training can be read as an odd course of behavior therapy or, as Lopez suggests, a kind of pedagogy meant to teach the audience about how early modern plays were made and presented. Not, I should say, a new “way” to behave in modern theaters – that is my distinction, not Lopez’s. In both cases, audience training presupposes a value system on modern playgoers—namely, that the modern playgoing experience is “bad,” especially when it is applied to the early modern play, and that the early modern playgoing experience—complete with audience interaction—is the only logical remedy. Audience training is then an extension of original practices’ orthodoxy/orthopraxy, and is problematic for all the reasons that the notion behind original practices is problematic: it often assumes the authority of history, it often claims to venerate the text or special, historically situated, contexts above all other considerations, it often claims a kind of purity as an element of its originality, and it often cultivates both a “right” belief and a “right” practice among all its participants. It is concerned primarily with the moment of conversion, to extend the metaphor, and the ecstasy of made belief that follows. At worst, audience training is a behaviorist, fascistic, pedagogical, dogmatic, or even evangelistic undertaking, an artificial enterprise that manufactures a livelier environment rather than allowing that environment to emerge organically or authentically. In this regard, it also ironically, and perhaps even oxymoronically, seeks to create an authentic experience with patently inauthentic means. What is more, audience training ignores, on some level, more than a little resistance from the early modern playmakers’ desire for a more austere performance environment than they encountered—prologues and inductions to plays and other documents of the period attest frequently to a hostility between a playwright and a hyperactive audience that wanted, and often did, take a yet larger role than some thought appropriate. Thomas Middleton describes a kind of hyperactive play-going event in his induction to No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s:
How is't possible to suffice
So many ears, so many eyes?
Some in wit, some in shows
Take delight, and some in clothes:
Some for mirth they chiefly come,
Some for passion, for both some;
Some for lascivious meetings, that's their arrant;
Some to detract, and ignorance their warrant.
How is't possible to please
Opinion toss'd in such wild seas?
Moth, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, seems to anticipate the hissing of the audience:
Shall I have audience? he shall present Hercules in
minority: his enter and exit shall be strangling a
snake; and I will have an apology for that purpose.
An excellent device! so, if any of the audience
hiss, you may cry 'Well done, Hercules! now thou
crushest the snake!' that is the way to make an
offence gracious, though few have the grace to do it.
Other examples are modeled for us in the hostile interjections in plays-within-plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, and in the energetic, preemptive inductions to many of Ben Jonson’s plays. The induction to Bartholomew Fair, for example, shows Scrivener even trying to set up a contract outlining acceptable audience response:
Inprimis, It is covenanted and agreed, by and between
the Parties above-said, and the said Spectators, and Hear-
ers, as well the curious and envious, as the favouring
and judicious, as also the grounded judgments and un-
derstandings, do for themselves severally covenant and
agree to remain in the Places their Money or Friends
have put them in, with patience, for the space of two
Hours and an half, and somewhat more.
At best, audience training rightly seeks to advocate for the audience in the theatrical enterprise for the first time in a long while, looking to move past the nature of theatre since the Victorians and in light of film. In this regard, audience training does not admit that early modern plays are things to be fixed, historical artifacts well past their expiration date for theatrical consumption, but rather is part of a process of unlearning theatrical norms—de-programming an audience dynamic that is no longer sustainable—and serves as an early modern solution to a post-modern problem.
Audience training may result from planning or may emerge from an unintentional discovery made in the rehearsal or performance process, and relies on experimentation in both settings to discover what works in the context of a particular performance or audience. Below, I describe several methods of audience training by providing a sort of thumbnail sketch of current methods and possible practices and the active and phenomenal responses that do (or can) result from such training. Many of the methods are drawn from my own experimentation while working as director of several Shakespeare productions. Though I categorize the various methods, I do so with no small measure of irony: for the early modern playing company, no such distinctions existed. For them and for today’s practitioners, play, genre, company, audience, environment, and language create a hyperactive relationship that demands the audience’s attention through every vehicle available: voice, hands, applause, laughter, senses, and impulses.
AUDIENCE TRAINING METHODS
Pre-show speeches can serve as a helpful locus for audience training, not least because they are among the first things the audience encounters. The ASC trains its audience by way of lengthy contrived pre-show speeches featuring actors from the company. Though the speech and its conventions have been curtailed in recent years, the ASC’s touring troupe productions still contain vestiges of the informative and educational preshow speech of the early ASC while the resident troupe has moved on to a mostly perfunctory welcome and some reminders to turn off cell phones. But even in its diminished form, the ASC pre-show speech serves several purposes, encouraging audience members to buy merchandise, raffle tickets, concessions, and serving to outline the company’s approach to original practices.
The pre-show speech was (and still is, in some rarer cases) often a mini-play, in which actors from the company offer a comic take on their characters or themselves. The actors explicitly tell the audience “we do it with the lights on” and encourage audience members to move to empty onstage or balcony seats. The format of the pre-show speech proves particularly useful in the ASC’s Actors’ Renaissance Season (ARS), an annual effort to engage in a broader slate of original staging practices. In the ARS, actors have limited rehearsal time, work from sides, have no director or designer, and employ a prompter. By definition, ARS productions are “rough,” with actors occasionally stumbling over lines or missing an entrance. By educating the audience about the original practices at work in these productions, the ASC seeks to engender a measure of grace among its audience, training it to approach the play more forgiving of the mistakes made in performance and enabling the audience to abandon the trappings that prevent it from engaging and responding to the play as actively as the early modern audience.
If pre-show speeches train audiences by being explicit, pre-show and intermission entertainments can do so by being kinetic. At a production of Julius Caesar at Waldorf College in 2008, student actors encouraged audience interaction by selling concessions, supplying programs directly to audience members, and staging an original pre-show performance entitled “The Triumphs of Pompey,” which provided a comic look at the events leading up to the action in Caesar. At the conclusion of the pre-show performance, audience members were invited by actors to the stage to engage in a dance complete with May pole, free drinks (non-alcoholic), confetti throwing, and an audience member being dressed with toga and laurel wreath. As the hyperactivity crested, audience members, even those not on stage, spontaneously burst into rhythmic clapping and cheers, while the actors playing the Tribunes began the play:
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?
Thus, the audience was induced to play a part not only in the overall event but in the narrative itself. Implicated as characters in the play, the moment became an opportunity for the audience to experience, even if briefly, the self-reflexive nature of the early modern play, where audience could read themselves into the performance and develop a certain feeling of “insider” knowledge of the play. One audience member at Waldorf’s production of Caesar commented that the opening sequence “made me feel like I was right there in Shakespeare’s time,” which may indicate a sense of conveyed authenticity on the part of the production to the audience (Fiebig). More significantly, the audience member acknowledged that she was in the world of the play, rather than watching it.
This training-by-fire took a further step in a fall 2009 Waldorf production of The Merchant of Venice. During the pre-show sequence, actors assembled benches into a platform onstage and then invited audience members to “take the stage” and tell their favorite jokes or lead the audience in a song. These audience-led varieties ranged from bar songs to knock-knock jokes to a karaoke-style song performance. The audience members’ jokes were sprinkled in with jokes from the actors, all part of an overall spirit aimed at highlighting the carnival atmosphere that informs some of the action in the Merchant text. Audience training added the step that the whole of the audience could see one of its members taking part, and associate that playing with what would be expected of them in performance.
Merchandizing the Environment
Audiences can be induced to greater interaction by the selling of food and other merchandise before and during performances. The varieties of smell and taste, and the noise of the transactions in a busy playhouse continually call upon the audiences’ multiple senses, activating and enlivening the experience along the way. Shakespeare’s Globe and the ASC’s Blackfriars Playhouse both serve food and sell programs or other trinkets before the performance and during intermissions, either in the playhouse or just outside it, in either case generating a steady stream of traffic in the playhouse. Atlanta’s New American Shakespeare Tavern admirably induces audience reaction through food and performance together, as it serves a meal from its “authentic British Pub Menu,” in the same space that its performances take place. While combining food sales and Shakespeare always invites the regrettable associations of the Renaissance Fair, the payoff for many companies is too great to resist.
Merchandizing the environment serves to both relax and muddle the experience for audiences, thereby training them to act or expect differently than they might in a more conventional theatre setting. In the 2007 indoor production of Twelfth Night, a 2008 outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,and the production of Julius Caesar mentioned above, Waldorf College actors handed out programs, and sold popcorn, soft drinks, and, depending on the production, roses, season tickets, raffle tickets for a student organization fundraiser, confetti, and other merchandise. Sweet Tea Shakespeare, in productions since 2012, engages a similar pre-show experience, raffling off specialized seating, selling shirts, custom-branded mason jars, and offering barbecue and beer for sale to patrons. The actors who sell the concessions are in costume, but not in character, as they go aisle-by-aisle, shouting to get attention, hawking merchandise, chatting with their classmates and families, and introducing themselves to patrons. The informal interaction serves several purposes. First, the cloak of an intimidating or highbrow Shakespeare performance yields in favor of the “hyperactive” performance environment. Second, the interactions, such as those at Waldorf, gave the undergraduate actors a chance to familiarize themselves with the audience that they were called to interact with later in the play, such as one of Viola’s soliloquies, one of Feste’s songs, or during Marc Antony’s appeals to the Roman mob. Third, the audience is “warmed up” for that interaction during the play later on. Though several of the actors keyed in to a Renaissance Fair brand of salesmanship during these interactions, the overall effect was an atmosphere of extreme noise, movement, and, not coincidentally, vastly increased concessions sales.
For the original practices company, audience training and its pursuit of interactivity, self-reflexivity, and variety is grounded in the notion of universal lighting. The claim that universal lighting invites audience interaction with each other and with actors and fosters participation in the play, defines the playgoing experience in Shakespeare’s Globe, the ASC’s Blackfriars Playhouse, and other companies today. The Globe employs a general lighting scheme for evening performances. The Blackfriars uses an array of period-looking electric chandeliers, sconces, and a false rose window to create a wash over actors and audience. The ASC touring company and Pigeon Creek Shakespeare both employ general lighting schemes, usually comprised of some theatrical lighting on the actors and existing house lighting for the audience. In each case, actors in these companies take advantage of the lit audience, directly addressing specific audience members, isolating a particular patron to be the subject of a joke about balding or age, and so forth. The audience in these settings tends to respond in kind, laughing at its own expense, or laughing at one of its members shamed or exalted as a part of a moment of interplay.
But universal lighting can arrest interaction in the playhouse, too. A lit audience member is sometimes an apprehensive one, concerned with his appearance or with the perception that he “gets” a moment in the play, or frozen by a fear of being conspicuous for the wrong reason, such as an errant cellular phone or a pressing need to escape to the restroom. Combined with the static nature of today’s universal lighting schemes—the light in the Blackfriars, at the Globe’s evening performances, and at many original practices productions does not move—the notion of universal lighting allows for interaction, but may not induce it.
Universal lighting, when it is in motion, more fully captures the audience’s attention and invites dynamic response, much as it did in the early modern period. Moving light, whether it was the sun moving across the opening in the roof at the Rose or Globe, a torch or taper moving across the stage, or candles flickering, dimming, or dripping in the Blackfriars or a private hall, caught the audience’s attention, awakened the sense of sight, and allowed actors and audience alike to engage countless possibilities of a very literal kind of shadow (or light) play. About the purpose-made lighting at the Blackfriars, Stern envisions the “shimmer of jewels and metallic threads embedded in the sumptuous clothes of actor and audience” (44). By using daylight or environmental simulation, today’s companies can “design” the stimulus of moving light that early modern playing companies used, by necessity, to great effect.
Moving light trains the audience by providing visual variety and by cueing the audience to regard the play in terms of time and mood. In a 2007 Indiana Wesleyan University production of Measure for Measure, and the 2009 Waldorf production of Merchant, the lighting design included a daylight simulation scheme that allowed the light to slowly change over the course of the production, eliciting an audience response along the way. In Measure, lighting design by Rob Pelance, the general lighting over the actors and audience at the beginning of the play was brightly lit, colored somewhat warmly with theatrical lighting gels, and lit mostly from positions above the audience (as the sun might be in an outdoor space). As the show progressed, the scheme changed slowly to more red and orange hues and lighting positions brightened on the sides of the performance space (as the “sun” set). The result was a feeling that the production was taking place outside, that time was passing. In a production like Measure, the long shadows and the hotly-colored lights cast as the play went on served an artistic function as well in this play about the heat of sin, lust, and shadowed identity. In Merchant, lighting design by myself with assistance from Jaye Upah, the warm colors of the first few acts eventually gave way to a descending darkness of the trial scene and the charming nighttime airs of Belmont in the play’s fifth act.
Of course, any play in any theatre may undertake this kind of design, but I suspect that it is rarer that one would adopt such an attempt like this, where outdoors is brought indoors, not just for a single scene of the play, but for the whole thing.
Audience training can make demands of the audience’s attention by embracing theatricality and contrivance. A thrust stage and audience seating on stage allow audience members to see backstage to stagehands (once costumed in Elizabethan and Jacobean dress during Mark Rylance’s tenure at the Globe) or actors not yet “in character.” At the ASC, actors use a very small backstage area for everything necessary for the business of the play. Nearby audience members play Dorothy to a backstage Wizard, seeing modern zippers and buttons on costumes during a change, or a modern, fire-safe lighter igniting a period-looking torch, or the clunky presence of a fire hose positioned just behind the stage-left entry. The visual access of the audience to backstage threatens, in no small part, the willing suspension of disbelief. An audience member, for instance, may not be able to commit to the believability of a character onstage when they have just seen the actor backstage reading a novel or winking at another, or engaging in the countless “out of character” businesses of the actor as she prepares to walk onstage. Whereas a conventional company today might spend its efforts and resources masking backstage areas or counseling its actors to stay out of eyesight, training the audience to watch the early modern play can involve an admission that actors and audiences have come to a theater and will therefore see theatrical things at work on stage and elsewhere. The plays themselves, notably in the Chorus’ invocation of the audience in Shakespeare’s Henry V:
CHORUS :Or in Jonson’s induction to Every Man Out of His Humour:
But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. Can this cock-pit hold
The vasty fields of France ? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt ?
ASPER (turning to the stage):
I not observed this thronged round till now!
Gracious and kind spectators, you are welcome;
Apollo and Muses feast your eyes
With graceful objects, and may our Minerva
Answer your hopes, unto their largest strain!
call on the audience to acknowledge the stage and its machinery while invoking their own machinery to fill in the experience: imagination. Lopez suggests that audiences are called upon both to notice the limits of the theatre and “as a place where thousands of miles, or dozens of years can be traversed” (80). The paradox of past and present, of being in and out of character, of belief in the play and acknowledgement of the play being made, can be a component of audience training for early modern plays (see Menzer’s discussion of the paradox of historical and theatrical effect in his aforementioned review of the ASC). Metatheatre is self-reflexive theatre; as the theatre admits its theatricality, so too can the audience recognize its role as an audience. With this knowledge, the audience can begin to act as it believes an audience should act, and may do so more theatrically as a result.
Audience training can incorporate extra-textual or extra-period conditions in an effort to stimulate greater audience interaction. The playgoing experience at the ASC and the Globe includes a vested member of the theater staff selling programs or concessions or, at the Globe, assisting patrons who have fainted from standing in the summer heat or seeing a display of realistic gore, as in the 2006 Globe production of Titus Andronicus. The transition from the modern lobby of a playhouse to the reconstructed interior of the Globe or Blackfriars forces a kind of cognitive dissonance that requires the audience to acknowledge the pretense of performance. The same holds true for original practices productions, such as those by Pigeon Creek Shakespeare or the ASC’s touring troupe, that take place in modern theatre spaces.
Audiences can be trained by production choices as well. At the ASC, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, and Sweet Tea Shakespeare, actors and musicians employ contemporary musical instruments such as the guitar or the trap-set drums or even the glockenspiel, contributing to a sense of artificiality or “eerie unplaceability,” as Paul Menzer describes ASC actor John Harrell’s Ariel singing with accompaniment on guitar (109). In a 2005 ASC touring troupe production of Twelfth Night, 4.2 was cleverly staged with Feste shouting down into an open box on the stage floor while behind him, in the “discovery” space, Malvolio shouted up from the imagined “cellar.” The audience was forced to imagine that these two actors, mere feet from each other on the same plane, were simultaneously above and below ground. The effect was surprising and captivating in its theatricality. In the Waldorf production of Julius Caesar, the props and costume design incorporated use of wooden swords and daggers that clattered and knocked as they were used in stage combat throughout the play. Caesar’s costume consisted of a period-looking doublet with multiple small pouches into which were sewn long ribbons of red fabric. During the assassination sequence, conspirators approached Caesar, dug their knives into his “flesh,” and pulled forth one of these ribbons in a spectacle that made Caesar look vaguely like a blowfish. Some audience chuckled at this and later at Cassius, Titinius, and Brutus as they stabbed themselves with wooden swords. These kinds of transparent spectacle challenge the audience to increase the stakes of their own imaginations, demanding the audience’s self-reflexivity and its engagement in the face of theatricality.
Of course, these examples are what we might call postmodern “takes” on the plays, in the way that the ladder in Our Town or the grape juice and cracker communion of Godspell would be. They are not original practices, by any stretch. What they do when they are present in the original practices context, however, is harken back to a pre-realistic theatre, underlining and undergirding the necessity of audience imagination in making the play work where the technology and effects may not.
AUDIENCE TRAINING POSSIBILITIES
Playing with Status
Practitioners may exploit status in order to train the audience for self-reflexivity in the early modern play. Though the historical record makes clear the role of status in the playhouses, whether in the pay structure for seating in the Wooden O, or the visit of Queen Henrietta Maria to the Blackfriars, creating a meaningful status system among today’s more egalitarian audiences is difficult even with ticket pricing tiers and seats on stage (Gurr, 17-23). Contemporary companies are quick to account for status in tours of the reconstructed Globe and Blackfriars, noting lords’ rooms, groundlings in the yard, gallants’ stools, and “Lords’ chairs” (a distinction made at the ASC’s Blackfriars for the backed and padded seats alongside the stage) but few or none recognize or experiment with the role of audience status in performance. The Globe anecdotally notes in its tours and during its 2005 BBC broadcast of Richard II the presence of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at a then-recent performance (Richard II). The ASC frequently notes donors and audience notables from the stage during its pre-show speeches and regularly invites audience members to sit in empty on-stage gallants’ stools or the balcony above and behind the stage. In 2004, Dame Judi Dench attended an ASC (then known as Shenandoah Shakespeare) production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Blackfriars Playhouse, which was also attended by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The ASC has also performed small showcases for Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and other local and regional politicians (“ASC”).
Audience training may also incorporate status-based games that create artificial status among the audience. Audience members may be separated into houses of York and Lancaster for history plays, as was the case in Megan McDonough’s graduate directing project, Queen Margaret, performed at the ASC’s Blackfriars in 2005, or into royalists and rebels. To date, however, scholars and producers alike have largely ignored the possible correlation these events have to early modern playgoing and what we might learn from them.
Examination and experimentation with status may help practitioners train audiences to understand and appreciate the role of status in early modern drama within the context of the performance. Is it possible, for instance, that the presence of a celebrity or a local noteworthy causes the audience not only to laugh at the gag on-stage, but also to laugh at an important laugher? Will separating an audience along artificial lines of political sympathies result in different feelings about the play among the audience groups? Does the presence of a government official who might extend a grant to the performing company affect the performance the way a patron’s presence might? Do we (or should we) watch the performance or the famous person? Opportunities abound for further study as companies welcome even relatively minor notables such as college presidents, local officials, or potential donors. As audiences are called to reflect upon their role in the status scheme of a reconstructed playhouse or even a contemporary theatre, they will inevitably apply what they learn of their own status to their understanding of status in the early modern play, allowing not only for self-reflexivity, but also cultivating the variety of multiple statuses in the playhouse.
Audience training can exploit the role of star power that was a factor in early modern performance. In the early modern era, star power was a factor both because actors in several companies were famous in their own right, and because actors were noted for playing various roles or types in the repertory scheme. Polonius’ claim in 3.2 of Hamlet to have played Julius Caesar while at university is often cited as a possible point for metatheatrical doubling: if the actor playing Polonius also played Julius Caesar in the preceding season, the audience benefits from being an “insider” to the joke. Menzer affirms the ASC claim that doubling “does produce…‘the delight of watching a favorite actor assume multiple roles,’” such as in John Harrell’s appearance as a broad array of characters in the 2006 resident troupe season (103). But many more opportunities for inducing audience response exist, from the casting of actors Susan Heywood and Matthew Sincell as Romeo and Juliet and as Isabella and Giovanni in Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in the ASC’s 2006 Actors’ Renaissance Season to the sort of ensemble-based stardom that the Globe’s single-sex or original pronunciation productions generate. The audience becomes self-reflexive as it responds to the variety both of actors and of a single actor in multiple roles within a production or season; the audience believes they are behind the veil of the company’s casting and doubling schemes, proud of their “insider” information about a recognizable actor in disguise.
Implications of Training, Then and Now
Throughout early modern plays, opportunities abound to cast the audience as a Roman mob, as might take place in the example of the tribunes’ chastisement of the Lupercal celebrants above or during Brutus’ and Antony’s speeches to the Roman mob in Caesar 3.2. On rarer occasions, early modern playwrights hint at an awareness of the early modern audience as audience, as might be the case in Hamlet’s condescension of the groundlings or Rosalind’s epilogue, and certainly in at least a handful of Ben Jonson’s prologues and inductions. In some sense, finding ways to engage this use of the audience comes off as bizarrely postmodern and generally discomforting to actors, audiences, and critics. Taken together, the Waldorf College production of Julius Caesar, with its theatrical, as opposed to realistic, approach to blood effect and props design, comic pre-show entertainment, active concession selling, invited the audience at various moments to jeer, to laugh, to express discomfort, and to guffaw at its theatricality. Yet any responsive audience might do this at any good or bad production of a given play—early modern or otherwise—and so long as the play is causing the response, no one is the wiser. There are almost unlimited choices for how a production could encourage audience engagement. Audience members can be invited on stage or encouraged, during a pre-show, to interact. The very set up of the theater could be modified to involve the audience: house staff or actors could encourage patrons to move from their seats to get a different view; patrons could be brought on stage to be part of the action or remain in their seats as part of a mob; theatre doors could be left open to encourage passers-by to look in or audience members to come and go freely. Or actors could be seeded into the audience to jump start behaviors, including “inappropriate” behaviors. Theatres could modify the physical stimuli that patrons encounter by using open spaces rather than theatre spaces or by the use of technology recreate the characteristics of early modern playgoing, such as the moving sun, the city noise or a fluttering tapestry. The possibilities mount, all to train the audience to think of the play as an early modern one, to distract it, to stimulate senses beyond seeing and hearing, and to train the audience not to pay attention to the performance when it need not. In this regard, audience training is not a scheme to trick audiences into paying attention, but rather to convince them not to pay attention, to voluntarily yield up places where the play runs thin, and where the event—beer, noise, things to look at—serves as insurance against potential weaknesses in the play or production. Ironically, the risk of the play “running thin” so bothered the early modern playwright that, in addition to directing instructive prologues to the audience, he filled the play with convention after convention—pun, joke, spectacle, word invention, gag, trick, character—designed to thicken the play as much as possible, and to call the audiences’ attention back to the stage (Lopez, intro.). Reconstituting this relationship by way of audience training mirrors the early modern experience in that it certainly requires more conscientious engagement of the audience by the actors involved, which by itself may create a more lively experience than modern theatrical practice, and in that it places more responsibility on individual audience members to maintain focus despite a variety of added stimuli.
The result may be an event that is both early modern and postmodern in nature, underlining the play as a play and the audience as player. This audience becomes one that responds not merely with the conventional theatrical responses of applause or laughter, but as a kind of early modern audience. Such an approach contradicts expectation, enabling an event where the “conservative censure of theatrical critics and cognoscenti can be blown away by that unpredictable, potentially unruly group, the audience,” (“Playing to the Crowd”) and which reinforces Stern’s vision of the play as “a site of a battle between audience and playwright for attention…a theatrical event of which the play was an element” (48). Stern’s notion is among the most problematic when applied to audience training or original practices because it asserts, counter-intuitively and subversively, that the audience does not always need to watch, or hear, the play at every moment of performance, and that the audience need not be in a subordinate position to the actors for theatre to take place. And these assertions are true for today’s practitioners: as audience training is aimed at cultivating an early modern audience dynamic—interactive, hyperactive, and phenomenal—practitioners can expect an early modern audience response, and the behaviors that come with it. Gurr highlights both the “normative” and “extreme” features of audience behavior (52). Normative responses include a noisier audience at public amphitheaters, whose audiences responded directly and vocally to the performance. Evident “common reactions” included hissing, “loude laughing,” and applause generated from the voice and hands alike, as “the audience, an active participant in the collective experience of playgoing, had no reason to keep its reactions private” (Gurr, 52-53). Special reactions, such as at performances at university, might include use of tobacco, loitering in the streets before the performance started, “rude or immodest exclamations,” “hawking,” “whistling,” and “stamping or knocking” (Gurr, 54). More extreme reactions included suicide, brawls, insurrections, and audience members leaping to the stage (Gurr, 54). Imagination or inevitability fills in the rest: drunks, a haranguing puritan, or a vocal snob all clamoring at the play or audience, the collective gasp or groan, the social division drawn among audience members as they reacted differently to the staged woman, Scot, or Welshman, or Frenchman, or Moor, or Jew, or puritan, or “other,” the departure of the bored patron, the solicitation of the prostitute, the movement to get a better view of the lead actor, and so forth. The early modern playgoing experience was an enterprise, built on satisfaction of its audience in the content of its plays, but also in the event it cultivated around those plays, an atmosphere that was lit, that smelled, that had sound and taste, that aspired to evoke emotion or to cause laughter, and which, for better or worse, empowered the audience to respond in a heightened manner. This heightened response joined and joins the plays’ heightened language in symbiosis, each feeding the other’s appetite, resulting in theatrical, aesthetic, and linguistic invention and action.
Today’s audiences inevitably have their own brand of responses, some of which can stand in for early modern audience responses. The early modern drunk here or hazelnut eater there has been replaced by vibrating or ringing cell phones, crinkling candy wrappers, clattering plastic cups, and inconsiderate adolescents. Such an environment does not befit most contemporary theatre aesthetics, where darkened houses, assigned seats, and food and beverage policies prohibit anything like a chaotic or interactive experience. Audiences laugh, applaud, but mostly behave themselves, as a line is drawn between etiquette and interaction. This line, it is fair to say, is moved considerably by many original practices companies towards interactivity, but a line it remains. The challenge for many original practices companies is that rather than contributing to a low buzz of activity in the playhouse, these “misbehaviors” are anomalies, still regarded as inconsiderate. And in historicized theatres like the Globe and Blackfriars, the criticism is amplified. The rudeness of a buzzing cellular phone or even a discreet text message sender is regarded not merely as rude, but as a thing which has transgressed the “authentic” experience. Pre-show speeches encouraging audiences to interact but discouraging them from using their cell phones sends a mixed message; moreover, it is bad teaching. The irony of audience training is that it seeks to insert new, sometimes chaotic, behaviors into the theatrical event when those kinds of behaviors already exist. If audience training, and indeed the original practices movement as a whole, is to be more than a scholarly-historical foray into theatre making, the very behaviors we loathe in the playhouse must be those we embrace, even down to flash photography, Facebook status updates, “friending,” text messaging, and other “unconventional” interactions. The early modern theatre was a social enterprise and the audience was empowered to engage socially and actively; rather than replacing current social habits with historicized ones, perhaps we can be satisfied with the ends and not the means.
Of course, there is real danger in empowering the audience to do anything beyond simply attending the performance, let alone in allowing it to stage a revolt in one’s own playhouse: audiences, by and large, are not specialists, as are the playmakers. Audiences are mobs. Audiences, in the early modern theatre and today, have the potential to explode into riot or to become a Berowne, a Longaville, or a Dumaine. Such possibilities may not have been desirable for early modern playwrights and may not be desirable today, but an argument can be made, quite aside from quaint views of historical performance, that the early modern theatre is one of greater potential—politically, culturally, socially, artistically, and otherwise.
As audience training continues to take shape in original practices productions, practitioners must begin the work of deciding what kind of interaction they want to create, and how this interaction must balance with interest in historical “authenticity.” And as some original staging practices make for an innovative and refreshing theatrical experience today, so too may some more experimental audience training methods. But to what extent will the hyperactive environment hastened by such audience training be welcomed? Will companies’ actors, in some cases protected by union contracts, permit a devaluation of their work on stage in favor of an atmosphere of greater chaos and hyperactivity? To what extent will they allow audiences to misbehave? Is an approach that embraces audience training more or less historicized if it allows contemporary substitutions for early modern audience responses? Whatever those audience methods, staging conditions, or rehearsal practices may be, one overarching question lingers at the center of the search to enliven today’s production of the early modern play. Namely, is the play “ideal” when it is presented in early modern ways or when it creates an early modern effect?
END NOTE: I would especially like to thank Ralph Alan Cohen, to whom this essay is dedicated, Ann Pleiss-Morris, and Erin Weinberg.
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