The Role of the Audience in Theatre

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  • 0:04 The Role of the Audience
  • 0:42 The Game of Supply & Demand
  • 2:41 Breaking the Fourth Wall
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

From the outside, an audience may appear to be a passive participant in the theatre. However, this couldn't be further from the truth. In theatre, the audience plays a crucial role in driving and even participating in the performance.

The Role of the Audience

Theatre, in a way, is the ultimate example of consumerism. In the time of Shakespeare and even ancient Greece, there was a certain element of responsiveness in theatre - if the audience didn't like it enough to show up, the performance could not go on.

Today, we often lose sight of that as many people have never sat in a theatre and experienced a performance. If people don't tune into a television show or go to watch a movie, the actors don't immediately feel that pain. However, in a live theatre setting, the audience is essential. The audience serves an important role because they generate the demand that keeps productions going.

The Game of Supply & Demand

From the moment of a play's conception, the audience plays a powerful role in dictating its content. After all, the audience is the consumer of theatre and the playwright the producer. Therefore, it's logical that some of the same rules that govern supply/demand for any other product still apply.

The audience's role as the consumer is a main focus of the playwright as he/she develops the plot, characters, and dialogue. A playwright has to consider questions such as:

  • Is the story being told relatable to the audience?
  • How will the audience react to the various characters in the play?
  • Does the plot build sufficient anticipation to keep the audience engaged?
  • Is there sufficient audience appeal in the plot and characters to attract an audience?

The audience drives every aspect of developing a theatrical performance. Initially, the audience serves the role of driving the content of the play or performance itself. The audience serves the role of driving other decisions as well. For example, producers will consider their audience during casting. They think about whether the actor is suited to the part along with whether or not certain actresses or actors will attract an audience to the performance.

Once the audience is in the seats, their role as consumers comes full circle. Think of it rather simply for a moment - what happens if an actor stands on stage and says a line intended to be funny but the audience doesn't laugh? How the audience reacts sends messages to the actors about how their performance is being received. Silence during a humorous section tells the actors that for many possible reasons, the audience doesn't see or agree with the humor being portrayed. This is the pain that any standup comedian has felt - especially earlier on in their career. But like standup comedians, the actors, in turn, use that information to adjust their current performance and perhaps future performances. Directors and writers also guide their decisions in future performances based on how the audience reacts.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

The line between the stage and the audience is known as the fourth wall of the theatre. When you watch television, the screen acts as the fourth wall, the invisible barrier dividing the actors and the audience. However, in theatre, the fourth wall can become fluid. Traditionally in Shakespearean plays, the actors could speak directly to the audience through soliloquies, monologues, and asides during the performance. When they do so, it breaks down the fourth wall and gives the actor and audience a chance to interact with one another.

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