Historical Context

Audience – performer relationships have shifted significantly throughout history. In ancient Greece theatre enjoyed significant status, which Susan Bennett describes as “…inseparable from social, economic and political structures”.(2013: 2) Theatre was a community event for the masses with no physical barriers between audience and performer. As theatre was linked to Athenian religious festivals the actors and spectators were “…sharing in a common act of devotion”. (Walcot 1976: 4-5)

Bennet notes that medieval and sixteenth century audiences maintained an active participatory role in theatre which had “…a flexibility in the relationship between stage and audience worlds”. (Bennett, 2013:3) Medieval theatre relied on the active participant and the ‘…lively imagination of the spectator’ (Meyerhold 1969: 27). It is not until the seventeenth century that the relationship moves towards one we are more familiar with; a relationship which separates the audience from the fictional stage world of the performer. The change in this relationship is the  “beginnings of passivity” in the audience. (Bennett, 2013: 3).

(Ars Memoriae, Theatrum Orbi | exemplar Fragmentorum, 2015)

Figure 1. 3D Staging-The Globe (Fludd , 1619)

Private theatre admissions resulted in more elitist audiences and the establishment of codes of conduct in the theatre. Andrew Gurr comments on spectators being situated in the auditorium with respect to their rank and this influenced how players moved in the space. Gurr also notes that three -dimensional theatre was an Elizabethan norm and “..we have lost the arts and all the effects of such three -dimensional staging.” (Gurr, 2004: 80). Fisher (2003) is of the opinion that the range of audience emotions is no different but the theatre tradition in how to represent these emotions has changed. While I agree that traditional theatre spaces are no longer set up for three -dimensional staging, many devising theatre companies are creating site specific, immersive theatre which may lessen this apparent loss.

Aside: Immersive theatre has been described as “…performances which use installations and expansive environments, which have mobile audiences, and which invite audience participation”(WHITE, 2012: 2).

Bennet describes the gradual pacification of audiences as the Elizabethan pits were closed and theatre moved towards naturalism by the end of 19th Century in  Paris & Moscow. This is the traditional relationship I am familiar with; a polite seated audience watching the fictional world of the performer and applauding politely at the close. I don’t feel the range of audience emotions is any different but the theatre tradition in how to represent them has changed . (Fisher, 2003)

Aside: I should not forget that polite audiences occasionally riot. Most notable to me, as I am Irish, the Abbey Theatre riots in 1907 for Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World and again in 1926 for O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars

More recently these traditions of audience passivity have been challenged, as”…the twentieth century saw an explosion of interest in the audience’s role among experimental theatre practitioners”. (Freshwater, 2009: 1) The theories and practice of Bertolt Brecht being the most notable, techniques such as direct audience address, episodic structure and lighting the audience to name but a few continue to influence audience engagement. Allan Kaprow ‘Happenings’, coined in 1959, is also credited as an influence for many devising practitioners in which the line between art and life is more fluid, potentially eliminating the audience as a theatre convention altogether (Heddon and Milling, 2006). Contemporary devising practitioners continue to de-construct traditions of the perceived passive audience by challenging audience expectations in both form and content as evidenced in the practitioner blog section.

Before you move onto the blogs I recommend taking a more theoretical view of the audience research in the ‘What is your role?’ section by clicking here.

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