“An audience without a history is not an audience” (Blau, 1990: 16)
Ronald Barthes sparked interest in reception research in his publication Pleasure of the Text (1975) where he incites that the reader creates the meaning in the text rather than the text containing fixed meaning established by the author. Today this may seem like an obvious assumption but how has this impacted audience-performer relationships? This undermined the authority of the author. In particular devised theatre has de-stabilised the authority of the playwright (or author), creating collective authorship and an increased focus on the role of the audience. In relation to reader – response theory Susan Bennet notes the limitations as in theatre the audience – performer relationship is more visceral. She comments;
” In the theatre every reader is involved in the making of the play. Indeed, the audience… is involved in a reciprocal relationship which can change then quality and success of a performance” (Bennett, 2013: 21)
Figure 2 “We are Gob Squad and so are you” (Gob squad, 2011)
Aside: Interestingly the etymology of audience is the latin verb audire – ‘to hear’, audiences were first listeners to to performers rather than viewers. Whereas Theatre translates to ‘place of seeing’.(Freshwater, 2009:5)
Susan Bennet theorises audience reception as containing two frames; “…the outer frame contains all those cultural elements which create and inform the theatrical event. The inner frame contains the dramatic production in a particular playing space “. (2013: 139) When I consider the outer frame there is a multitude of viewpoints each audience member brings to the inner frame such as class, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, education and religion. Devising collectives bring cultural and political viewpoints to the inner frame which they ask audiences to witness, question, reflect on or partake in. In an interview Forced Entertainments Tim Etchells highlighted the importance of the unwritten contract between audience and performer;
“For me the most important thing as an audience member is an openness to being there – to watching and experiencing what is actually happening. That sounds very simple, but I think for most of us, myself included, that’s hard, because you come with other things on your mind, with expectations and preoccupations and it’s very easy to get confused between what you’re looking at and what you wish you were seeing.” (Tim Etchells , 2001)
This openness is the ideal scenario for the audience-performer relationship. Devising practitioners invite audience members to play a particular role in the performance, how we describe this role is”… laden with value judgments. Are they just viewers, or accomplices, witnesses, participants?”. (Freshwater, 2009: 2) I may have mislead you, there is no short answer to the question “what is your role?” but I hope this has highlighted your importance in the relationship. I will attempt to explore some possibilities in the following blogs. For my opening blog, audience as witness click here.