It's not just audiences who watch
Performers respond to the audience just as much as the audience responds to them.
An audience is a strange animal. Of course, when you are in an audience, you think it's a perfectly normal and natural group of individuals to be part of. You take for granted that you are exclusively on the side of the watchers. It never strikes you that you are, in fact, also being watched. Surreptitiously.Skip to next paragraph
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In our recent production of "The Crucible," since we were all being kept rather busy on the stage side of the proscenium arch, there wasn't much opportunity for audience watching.
But I was intrigued because at most of our performances we were playing to busloads of schoolchildren – not a familiar experience.
Arthur Miller's classic is on school curricula in Scotland, so invitations were sent out to English and drama departments all over this small country. Somewhat amazingly, bookings came rolling in, and we even had to put on two extra nights to accommodate the juvenile deluge.
I should mention, perhaps, that "The Players," which has existed for more than half a century, is an amateur club with a roster of more or less faithful patrons who dutifully undertake to come to each of the three plays we stage during our autumn-to-spring season. (In summer, we hibernate.)
So we are not accustomed to audiences of under-18s. More like over-70s. This means a generally measured form of appreciation at curtain-call time, a discretion that is further tempered by the natural reserve of Scottish people, even when enthusiastic.
Lifting up right hand to meet left, to bring about that conventionally percussive collision known as a clap, can sometimes be a matter of some exertion.
Certainly nobody would dream of standing in order to ovate, however much they may have been kept awake by the performance.
I exaggerate uncharitably, perhaps. But some of our long-standing actors do recall the occasion when, in a play called "How the Other Half Loves" (it was a Saturday matinee when people can sometimes feel drowsy), a lady of Enochian vintage in the front row was so soundly asleep throughout Act I that the actors were becoming increasingly suspicious she might have actually passed away.
At the end of the act, however, there was some clapping, and she was so startled that she woke up suddenly.
She would have found it more difficult to doze off if she had come to "The Crucible." The school audiences were remarkably well behaved, but they were of a different caliber. They were charmingly unpredictable as well as splendidly attentive.
About three nights into the run, in Act III – when the girls, tutored by Abigail, stage mock mass hysteria as if possessed – I was able to steal the briefest of glances at the front row and was gratified to see several rapt kids there, mouths agape, leaning forward in anticipation of they knew not what. They were definitely not asleep.
There were moments, though, when those on stage were under the impression that they were doing full justice to Miller's drama, and yet the audience was strangely struck with a need to laugh.
One night a ripple of oohs and aahs greeted the kiss at the end of the play between Proctor – condemned finally to hang – and his wife, Elizabeth, giving him an emotional farewell.
This is not a stunningly funny moment, but it seemed that a faction in the audience needed some sort of levity at that point. And every night, just after this instant, when that admirably righteous old woman, Rebecca Nurse, stands to start her walk to the scaffold and, stumbling, mutters that she is weak because she has had no breakfast, this elicited laughter.
I eventually suggested to our director that it might be better to cut this immortal but not completely necessary line because it was spoiling the end of the play, but she wouldn't do so, out of respect for the playwright.
The audiences clearly meant no harm by this laughter, and minutes later when we were all lined up for our bow, they didn't just clap sedately or even exuberantly. They cheered, catcalled, yelled, and thumped with a degree of exhilarated appreciation that took us by surprise and made us all feel that we might, after all, have been quite passable.
It was heartening, even though I think it's probably just what young people these days do at the end of any performance and also sometimes at the beginning, because they are conditioned by the excitement instilled in and generated by TV studio audiences.
Of course, an audience can take on a kind of mass identity that doesn't necessarily represent the exact feelings of every last person in it. I was amused one night to spot a girl sitting motionless and silent while everyone around her indulged in exultation.
This young lady, for whatever reason, did not choose to join in. I didn't quite know whether to be pleased with her. I ended up with a sort of sneaking admiration. She wasn't going to be swept along with the crowd! She will never know, of course, that I rather liked her performance.