The University Record, October 15, 1996

Novice theater audiences expect breaks more often

Alexander Alioto (at left), currently starring in the Theatre Department's production of 'Pamela' and Leigh Woods (at right), as they appeared in Harold Pinter's 'The Collection.'


By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Another theater and concert season is under way. Actors, musicians and performers are ready.

But is the audience?

Some of them may be. Others, probably not. "People are so schooled on television," says Leigh Woods, an actor and professor of theater, "that they expect a break every 10-15 minutes." Seasoned theater and concert goers don't have trouble sitting through a performance or responding to what's being presented until the intermission, but younger audiences are having a hard time, Woods says.

Attending a "live" performance is a different kind of experience than watching the action on a cinema or television screen. In the theater or concert hall, the viewer is no longer alone, but is part of an audience where it is necessary that each member be respectful of the others as well as the people on the stage, Woods says. "An audience is actually a part of the performance, which they are not in the cinema or in front of the TV."

If all goes well with a production and the performer is doing his job, the audience will bond, responding to the performance. The actor, musician or dancer learns to feel that energy from the audience, Woods says, and nurtures it. "The audience has a core or heart. It's like it's one big person."

Audiences in other times and places were much more visceral than we are now. In the 19th century there were even theater riots, when the audience became highly aroused by the performance. Until 1850, theater was a popular entertainment and audiences were rather unsophisticated, crude and rough.

Audiences of today are more reserved and generally don't whistle and shout. They are much more genteel than those of what has usually been considered a more genteel time.

An audience has to be open, willing and susceptible to the moods of the performance. In the 18th century, people went to the theater to cry. The value of a live performance is the sense of community created, Woods says. That community includes the performers offering a connection that seldom comes from watching television or even a movie.

One person can have an influence on others in any group including an audience, says Andre Modigliani, associate professor of sociology. "A particular line in a play may be ambiguous as to whether it is funny or not. If one person begins to laugh, and then the person next to him begins to laugh, the rest of the audience will probably join in. They were waiting for clues from the others on how to respond and to tell them whether or not the line was funny."

Contemporary performances also often deal with social issues and have the potential to bind the audience together, Woods says. "But the audience has a responsibility to be open and responsive to the performance and the performers, becoming the catalyst for building community within the theater or concert hall."

Sometimes members of an audience are not sure just what behavior is acceptable. A standing ovation for a performance can begin when just a few people stand up, followed by more and more until the entire house is standing and applauding. Embarrassment becomes a factor in this instance, Modigliani says. "It's a little like not standing up for the national anthem."

As individuals, Modigliani says, we are concerned with how the group is perceiving us. We don't want to be different. And we are also concerned as to whether we are responding appropriately.

But a family or a group of friends watching television together is far different from being a member of a theater or concert audience where we can respond as a whole, feel secure in our reactions or actions and know that our behavior is accepted by the whole, Modigliani says.

"We don't get much practice being an audience at home."