In one of my other texts-thoughts I was indirectly answering Peter Brook’s question why would anyone want to make theatre. The obvious relation to the question is to whom. After studying a list of highly accomplished directors, contemporary or not, most of them will have asserted that the audience is key. Well, of course they are, otherwise there wouldn’t be a theatre. However, not all directors dedicate their lives just to satisfy the audience. Simon McBurney is one director who does what he does to satisfy himself in the first place. I find the statement particularly brave and honest because deep inside I believe that most people seek their own satisfaction first then they think about the rest – but few are the ones who admit to it.
It is also true though that directors might never be one hundred per cent satisfied when s/he is forced to go away, simply let go, after the productions’ previews in order to either work on the next project or to stop her/himself from making further changes, or better, improvements. In this stage, the show is only between audience and actors. Even techies backstage might feel a little like ‘fish out of water’ because they don’t have direct contact to those watching, despite being in the position of influencing them through their visual and/or atmospheric art.
Being so, the audience cannot be ignored. I believe that the better an audience is studied before-hand the bigger are the changes of packed houses and satisfied clientele. But isn’t the aspect of danger that excites so many directors? When Brook travelled to Africa with his Conference of Birds he never knew what to expect simply because he could not count on a certain behaviour from the audiences. That is why the results were always mixed. I think it is even a bit unfair to compare the success factor of international touring companies with companies accustomed to presenting shows to same group of people, even ethnic-wise, as discussed in a previous text.
Call me silly, but as an outsider, I never really understood the difference of audience between the National Theatre in London and the West-End. Okay, the West-End is synonymous with commercial theatre, but still, it is London, isn’t it, and it’s not the suburbs when the distance between one and the other is of maximum 15 minutes by car. How can a producer and a director expect a different audience in this case? It is already different if the show transfers to New York or to some little unknown town in New Zealand, but within London, really?
The truth is that a touring company cannot know the audience but can only guess from what the producers might have told them. This means that their chances of success are smaller, unless you take the time and give it some effort to adjust the production textual-wise or technical-wise to best serve the audience of that specific case, like Jatinder Verma tries to do. Verma, just like director Eugenio Barba, sees the audience not as a pack, a group, but as individuals. The unique spectator sees a production differently from the person sitting next to him. Spectators create their own meanings depending on their life experiences.
One cannot generalize in terms of audience, but if you must do so as a director for practicalities and let’s say, logistics, then one should at least expect that a great part audience members might be unsatisfied or that they will take what they saw mechanically, as irrefutable truth, just like Chinese people do when watching Shakespeare in English in China. They think that they are not in position of discussing anything, but that they should simply just learn, not debate, what they see onstage. They expect the same behaviour from foreigners watching the Peking Opera: ‘Just watch, learn and don’t question anything. It is the way it is’. This is how Chinese are taught to live and think in a country that never supported independent thinking, quite on the contrary, a country that even punishes people for having opinions.
Augusto Boal, from the other side, turned his audience into spect-actors in theatrical ambushes, with or without their official agreement to participate. He disregarded the fact that no every audience member wants to be active in the theatre. Some just want to blend in their seats and become them, quite invisible. Still, call it disrespectful, but Boal shook off his audience and transformed them into actors (in terms of making action/making something happen), not just watchers.
When heavily criticized for his Mahabharata, Peter Brook said that nobody can please everybody. Right he was. Barba developed a system where he stamps the spectators into four categories. Easily put, they would be the ‘child’, who sees only what is shown. The ‘director’s ego’, who will trace the director’s steps and seek his imprint on the play. The ‘stupid one’ who does not get anything at all. And finally, the ‘invisible type’, the one who will be thinking, looking at, hearing things that nobody else will. By developing this categorisation, Barba believed that a director could be more successful because the production would have something to offer to everyone, but I see that splitting spectators into categories doesn’t really change anything because spectators will still be different people acknowledging things differently. If a director tries to please all four groups at the same time he runs the risk of becoming too vague. So, in this sense I would rather choose a group to whom I wish to speak to and run the risk of not pleasing everyone. This option would not be too popular among producers, but it is about the integrity of a director.
By choosing a group I mean choosing the venue carefully. Or if I cannot choose the venue, I would choose the text that would speak to the group that frequents that venue. I still can have my own interpretation of a text, for instance, but knowing that Sara Kane’s Blasted would not be the first choice of play in a theatre that is known for having 60 plus middle class audiences, I could have a higher rate of success and ticket sales if I chose some Greek tragedy or classics in general.
A few months ago I attended a musical that my son’s school produced here in Beijing. Not being a musical fan, there are only two musicals I enjoyed until now, those being Polanski’s Vampire Killers (Tanz der Vampire) or Grease. Truth is that I had watched both films before so it was nice to see it onstage later. But when loads of singing is in the text, than I prefer opera. Grease was the production at school and when talking to the teacher/director she also admitted that she wasn’t a big fan of musicals but that the school audience would rather digest a musical than Ibsen, for instance.
I believe that with today’s theatre reality one is happy to get a venue at all, when a producer gives you a chance to work. So, only very few directors can do what they want: star directors or fringe directors. That is why those are the places where audiences find the most exciting works.
Theatre is magic not only because it is an invitation to another world, and sometimes another time in history, but also because everyone is invited to take part in it. Spectators can choose to ride along or not. Freedom is what a live performance is about and with freedom comes risks, both for the director, actors and the whole team involved, but also for each and every spectator, because s/he can have the trip of a lifetime or be forced to acknowledge a reality through stage action that they wish they wouldn’t have to.
Luciana B. Veit