On many practical levels, there is no theatre without an audience. It is their witnessing, imagination, belief, and engagement that is at the energetic heart of a live experience. Thinking about the audience as a respected collaborator has kept theatre challenging, juicy, and fresh for me.
When I was first starting out, the audience was almost entirely a source of anxiety—even fear. I thought of them as a mass that I needed to please. That was my job, and, if I succeeded, also my reward. My mind roiled with questions. First it was, Will they like me? Will they like the show? Will they laugh? Will tonight mean something to them?—in that order. And then, moment-to-moment, during my performance, Did they like that bit? I wonder if they’ll like this next thing?
I used to isolate myself backstage and cry after we performed for our first audiences. The energy they brought into the room utterly rocked me. I hadn’t learned how to work with that energy—it would distract me and confuse me, consuming me like a tidal wave. I knew I had to perform the show as it had been directed, but that I also needed to let the audience into the experience. Where do I place my energy? How do I integrate theirs?
I remember the first time I did a show with Liisa Repo-Martell. It was called Skinny Saints, written by Pippa Domville. I had to apologize to Liisa after opening night because I had hijacked our scene together, gotten ramped up on the audience’s mild laughter and gone looking for more. So embarrassing. Clearly, showing off wasn’t the way. I also remember being on stage in one of my very first professional shows, Dancing at Lughnasa, with a list of Canada’s greats—Seanna McKenna, Tom McCamus, Patrick Galligan, to name a few. I had been so nervous to stand up beside them that I underplayed my part, almost as if I wanted to be invisible, somehow hoping the audience wouldn’t see me even as I danced wildly centre stage.
When I look at these experiences now—and there are plenty more!—I think that in some way I was trying to hide from the audience. Isn’t that strange? And this hiding behind a “performance” meant not allowing myself to live inside the imaginative scenes in a way that likewise invited and allowed the audience’s presence.
Over time, this misplaced performance energy coupled with the beleaguering, self-conscious questioning repeated ad nauseam slowly depleted my energy and impoverished my experience of performing. Clearly it wasn’t nearly enough to try to just please the audience or alternatively, pretend they weren’t even there. But if that wasn’t enough, what would be? What did I want to do in relation to the audience? And who, by the way, were they anyway? I hadn’t really thought of that.
I didn’t really start considering this question in a truly productive way until I wrote my first play, I, Claudia about twenty years ago. This one-person show, which was to be performed in mask, was set in the basement of Claudia’s middle school and directly addressed the audience. But who were those people in the basement with her? It was a question that my director, Chris Abraham, and I talked about a fair bit.
We decided that the audience was made up of confidantes, both for Claudia and for the other characters. Everyone present had a privileged glimpse into Claudia’s world, and we assumed their care, concern, and empathy. This gave me an intention for how to include the audience energetically into my experience of performing the play.
The play also had a character named Drachman, the school custodian who came from the fictitious country of Bulgonia, where he had been a theatre director. Creating this character was very instructive to me. He had many ideas about the theatre and performance which came pouring out of me during improvisations. In particular, Drachman was very clear on his feelings about who the audience is in the theatrical experience. He believes audiences meet each performance in an imaginative non-place and co-create the theatrical experience alongside the actors. While the performance may exist regardless, the energy of it is inert until the audience animates it with their belief and witnessing. I took this improvised bit of theatrical instruction into the experience of performing I, Claudia, and it has stayed with me ever since. The audience is a magical co-creator—not an entity to be frightened of—but a source of energy and belief.
With a performance intention to include the audience as confidantes, and with a growing understanding of how to include the audience as co-creators, I had a completely different experience of performing I, Claudia than I had had with previous shows. The energy the audience brought into the theatre was not something I had to manage with my fragile actor’s ego. I was able to perceive and use it like it was fuel; it could be metabolized moment by moment throughout the show, energizing the story and feeding the performance engine.
In subsequent shows I’ve written, the “theatrical idea” for the show always includes creating a very intentional space for the audience to occupy. That’s what gets me excited as a creator. I can now say I love the audience and I love basking in their energy. In my play The Patient Hour, the audience occupied the space of a dying patient in the hospital room. In Someone Else, the character of Cathy was a stand-up comedian in a creative slump, and the audience was her audience, enlisted to witness her failing humour as it degenerated into biting, cutting bitterness. And in The Wedding Party, I leaned into the audience by proposing all sorts of absurdities, which then became the accepted theatrical truth just by the audience’s belief. In that show I played a dog, and I was immediately accepted as such by the wildly imaginative audiences who were prepared to make every leap of faith.
That’s what I love about audiences. They’ll go anywhere with you if you make room for them in the experience. They’ll lift you up and energize you, and teach you what it is that you’re doing.
After all these years of cultivating my own thoughts and practices about how to engage audiences as a performer and a writer, I was offered the opportunity to perform in Every Brilliant Thing, written by Duncan MacMillan in collaboration with performer/stand-up comedian Jonny Donahoe. It’s a comedy about depression and suicide that makes tons of space for the audience. In fact, the theatrical engine of the show is how the audience literally co-creates the play. About 70 audience members per night are given cue cards with essential lines to read out during the play. Other audience members make cameos, and others still become characters. This is a whole new level of not being afraid of the audience! The play doesn’t just make use of the audience’s belief, but it welcomes them as individuals into the making of the show.
This is a performance challenge I wanted to take on because it’s a bold and direct proposition (to me!) for how to include the audience in performance. I love the feeling that I anticipate it will create in the performance space—of warmth, presence, and playfulness. In a play about depression and suicide, I love that audience members speaking out gives theatrical expression to the idea that we are not alone. And even more than that, that there is vitality in coming together. This play taps directly into that vitality. So, even though I’m still a little nervous as we approach opening, I can’t help but feel excited to play with audiences in a new way.
Kristen Thomson stars in Every Brilliant Thing presented by Canadian Stage at the Berkeley Theatre until December 16, 2018. For tickets and more information, click here