The Theatre Experience from Both Sides of the Stage
Being an audience member and being a performer can both be equally wonderful, frightening, exhilarating, and uncomfortable. I thought that since I’ve been in both places in my life, and have been fortunate enough to see Tim Crouch before, it might be helpful to post about the experience. If you haven’t read it, the NYTimes Review of I, Malvolio is really helpful for getting a sense of what the performance was like, and is posted below.
I, Malvolio is an especially powerful piece that asks a lot of the audience in terms of emotional engagement and, at times, direct interaction with the performer. Tim Crouch really likes to develop a relationship with his audience. During his play, England, he and another performer took the audience through the galleries at the Wexner Center, slowly telling the story of a person who needs and receives a heart transplant. The staging was very simple, and there were silences in which he and the other performer just made eye contact with the audience, or checked in with them to make sure everyone was feeling okay, no one needed a chair, etc. It was intense, especially the eye contact, but I personally also felt very cared for, which is an interesting sensation to haveТusually we think of being an audience member as being a person who is passive and who watches the performance instead of being an integral part of it. In a performance that asks the audience for something, or acknowledges the audience so completely, we can become uncomfortable. Usually, we are there to watch, not to be watched.
This is in many ways the crux of I, Malvolio. We are put on trial for watching, for allowing ourselves to be entertained by Malvolio’s misfortunes. We are asked to think about why we found it funny, why we donТt sympathize with his position, why we so easily dismiss the darkest part of Twelfth Night and buy into the happy ending. Why we donТt do something about it.
At the same time, I, Malvolio also contains comic moments, which, I think weТll find, are moments of safety for the audienceТmoments when we get to laugh, when we get to visit that more comfortable position of those who watch instead of are watched.
IТve been in performances that involve direct contact to and with the audience, and itТs not easy to be on the performerТs end either. You have to be willing to face the audiencesТ rejection, because not everyone who you reach out to will be willing to play along. You get good at reading peopleТs body language and figuring out who might be comfortable enough to take a risk in front of everyoneТsomeone who is willing to become a performer for a moment and give up the safety of being one of many audience members. People react differently, they laugh, cross their arms and avoid contact, they jump in with both feetТeveryone now and then someone speaks back to the performer. Moments when the audience speaks back are my personal favorites, because it then creates a moment in which literally anything can happenТwill the performer continue with their lines? If they do, do they acknowledge what just happened or ignore it? Will they improvise, either with a verbal or physical response? It makes the ТlivenessТ of theatre even more tangible.
That liveness is what makes theatre a different experience than seeing an actor on film. In film, you can turn it off or get up and leave at any moment without changing the performance, but just about anything you do in a theatre can impact the actor on stage. If you laugh, the actor responds, if you donТt laugh, the actor might change what theyТre doing or try something new to see if it makes you laugh. If you use your phone or talk, the actor can choose to draw attention to it.
When we see I, Malvolio, I hope we can enter into both the joys and the discomforts of the experience. Trust that you are safe, even if and when you might be asked to do something, to say something, or have to make eye contact with the performer. It might feel uncomfortable or scary, but itТs also an opportunity to enter more fully into the experience. Try to let yourself engage fully, listen to MalvolioТs story, look for personal connections you can make to it, think about how it makes you feel. Most of all, donТt be afraid to feel what you feel, thatТs the greatest thing that art gives us.