You, The Audience
I was invited to contribute to a one-day symposium entitled You, The Audience at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. I presented an extract from The Beginning (2012) alongside some thoughts on the inherent contract between the artist and the audience and how we might see it as a love letter from us to them. It was presented as part of a panel on artists and audiences chaired by Andy Smith. Here are my thoughts on the event, the Royal Exchange’s Audience Manifesto and a list of things I probably should have said but didn’t have time to, alongside the text I read. Now it reads like an alternative manifesto for my work.
In the beginning
We wanted to write a contract
So you would know
What to expect from us
And what we expect from you
With The Beginning, I wanted to make a piece of theatre that spoke directly to the audience about what they might expect. I suppose it was a gesture towards making an invitation to them. To share a moment with me, of eye contact, an acknowledgement that we are all in it together. At the beginning of the show, we ask the audience members to turn to the person sitting next to them and tell them their name, to smile at each other, to share their telephone numbers and, if they feel comfortable enough, to touch each other lightly on the knee. I wanted to break the ice and have them acknowledge each other and that they were there, in the audience, and we were here, onstage. I wanted us to be aware of each other from the start. Some of the most engaging theatre I have seen, by Andy Smith in fact, invites us to take our shoes off, so that we have arrived somewhere. So that we treat that somewhere like our home. I suppose that’s what the Royal Exchange Theatre want their audience to feel like too. Andy made the point that after years of theatres called Empires or Palaces there is a turn to calling venues approachable names, names that make them more familiar, like Contact or Home.
What we give
And what you take
And what you pay
And what you get
Because we want you to get your money’s worth
Money’s a sore point. Because there isn’t any. Somebody asked us what we do that is different in this space here. The idea of being an artist and being paid for it came up. The idea that the audience pays to be there and sits in the dark is implicit in that transaction. They pay. We play. Sometimes they pay what they can, or more disturbingly, what they think we’re worth. I did a show once in a venue that put a ‘Your money back guarantee’ logo on it. It made me want to give them the fee back and tell them to spend it on somebody else whose work felt like less of a gamble. I don’t do it for the money. I fell in love with the theatre before I knew you could get paid for it. I called it amateur dramatics, or am dram for short. Amateur comes from the Latin for love. The Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are amateurs too and perform for the love of it. Bottom is given a love potion and falls in love. The Beginning takes this premise and explores why we perform and how we want the audience to feel in love too, with each other, with us, with the theatre. We play Je T’Aime and we kiss. We flirt with them and we try to make the stage smile. We sing Will you still love me tomorrow? and we mean it. Because want it to be a relationship not just a one night stand.
The last thing we want to see is someone sitting there
Who doesn’t want to be there
Holding someone else’s hand
And whispering in their ear
‘I can’t believe we got a babysitter for this!’
I have children. My children’s voices appear in my work. Dylan, my son, narrates a scene in The Beginning about following stage directions. When we recorded it, he was just starting to talk and his voice has an innocence, a not-knowing, that seems appropriate to the show, to falling in love. I know what it’s like to go the theatre and worry about the children at home. I know how valuable a night out at the theatre can be. But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to feel challenged, provoked, troubled, shaken or stirred by it. In fact, because I have children and stay up late and wake up early, if I’m not challenged, provoked, troubled, shaken or stirred then I will fall asleep. And that’s just a waste of money. I have heard the line ‘Theatre should be a safe space’ twice this year. Once in the Royal Exchange’s Audience Manifesto and once in a tweet by President Elect Trump when Mike Pence was booed at a performance of Hamilton. He actually said ‘Theatre should always be a safe and special place’ and I tweeted this alongside a quote from the academic Mike Pearson about how ‘Performance is a dangerous place’. In academic circles, we talk about ‘problematising the work’, to make a problem out of it. Artist Joseph Beuys said ‘Art should pass over people like a cloud, a puzzle that wants to be solved, but not straight away’. The Royal Exchange’s Audience Manifesto ‘want(s) theatre to be a safe space for difficult conversations.’ That sounds like lulling people into a false sense of security. I would rather step over the hazard tape and know the risks I am taking by being there. As long as we know where the exits are then there is always a way out.
Or someone sitting there
Who doesn’t want to be there
Touching someone else’s knee
And whispering in their ear
‘Shall we leave in the interval?’
I grew up watching theatre with intervals where the actors brought cups of tea to the audience. Something similar happens in Third Angel’s recent show Partus where they invite a conversation over tea during the interval and the space is set for a meeting rather than a performance to take place. As I got older, and the theatre got more challenging, I realised that intervals happened less often. I was there at Warwick Arts Centre in 2001 when Forced Entertainment’s First Night made people walk out after telling them how they were going to die. Alan Rivet called it ‘A coming of age ritual’ in Programme Notes (2007). In the same publication, Tim Etchells cites their 1996 piece Showtime: ‘There’s a word for people like you… and that word is… Audience. An audience likes to sit in the dark and watch other people DO IT’. An audience member at the Royal Exchange spoke about not wanting to be in the spotlight but a lot of work does cast an unsettling light on the audience. I’ve staged Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience and sensed a similar discomfort in the air when the audience realise they can’t just sit in the dark but are, in fact, being directly addressed by the performers. But the idea that we might leave in the interval is only possible if there is one. However discreetly we leave there is still a sense that a quiet walk out becomes louder online. Someone left my piece The End (2011) after 5 minutes and tweeted that it was the worst show they had ever seen. They tagged me so I was able to offer a refund and say that maybe the other 55 minutes might have changed their mind. If only there had been an interval…
There isn’t an interval
And so we thought it might be nice if
You would sign a contract between us
Each one of you. Individually
One by one. On the dotted line. In a black pen
The idea of getting the audience to sign a contract isn’t new. When they buy a ticket they are essentially signing up to whatever happens when they walk through the door. As Tim Etchells writes: ‘Theatre and performance are for me best seen as spaces of possibility – places were anything can and should happen’. This is far from Trump’s ‘safe and special place’. Language, the shared currency of most theatre, itself can be unstable and create a sense of charting unknown territory, a sense of adventure, a sense of taking risks. As Jean Genet wrote: ‘… words still make us reel and our vocabularies pitch and toss’. As such the theatre, with its words, with its lack of boundaries, is a dangerous place. Pearson and Shanks describe performance as ‘… a place where things may still be at risk – beliefs, classifications, lives’. The Beginning exhibits its own devising process as questions are asked of the audience throughout about if they would like to leave or if the performers will kiss them or not. In this context, Will you still love me tomorrow? by The Shirelles makes the audience aware of, and at the same time, challenges the tacit unwritten contract they ‘sign’ with performers onstage. It asks them to consider if they will enter into a long-term relationship or a one night stand, if they will continue to consider its invitation to fall in love after they leave the theatre or not. We are breaking the rules, we are breaking the fourth wall, we are breaking hearts, because we know that the audience will leave and we will never see them again. And if they don’t like it, as Richard Lowdon says in Showtime, ‘if it comes to fight the audience will win’. Perhaps sometimes the theatre isn’t a safe space for performers. They are ones in the spotlight after all. That is why after showing this scene in The Beginning I tear up the contract live onstage.
And if you don’t sign it
Please take a moment to think about why
Before slowly making your way towards the exit
Whispering ‘Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me’
As you shuffle sideways to the end of the row
Hoping no one on stage will notice
In The Beginning the performers tell the audience that they are reading the programme. The text references the fire exit signs in the theatre where it is performed and makes the audience aware of the fact that they might leave. Describing the contract that they invite the audience to sign, the performers say ‘If you leave, we leave, because we are all in this together’. The piece is engaged in a line of enquiry about entrances and exits, comings and goings, beginnings and endings. It plays with the materiality of time itself. In The Beginning, the hour of the show is shifted backwards so what you see is the action that takes place in the hour before you arrive in the theatre. Time, like space, is pliable in performance and words and actions can rewrite it. Theatre is a time machine. Theatre is a portal. You see a play set in the past or in the future and you travel there and then without questioning how you got there. The Beginning works from the basic assumption that it is more interesting to ask why something is set in a theatre. The time is now. The place is here. When we read this scene at You, The Audience, Alex Kelly’s phone interrupted us and we started the text again. It’s moments of liveness that you can’t control that reinstate theatre’s immediacy, its now-ness.
But we have noticed and we will notice
And the contract will say
If you leave, we leave
If you get up and go, we get up and go
So you see, we are all in this together
Andy Smith challenged us at the You, The Audience symposium to think of a theatre without an audience. He suggested that this wasn’t possible. Someone mentioned an operating theatre and he said even then there is an audience, perhaps a nurse or an anaesthetist, watching the doctor at work. Of course, in the olden days, operating theatres were called theatres exactly because there was an audience. Now complex procedures are streamed online. Theatre and its audience are inextricably linked. It is as if to say it only exists because there is someone there to see it. The Audience Manifesto stated ‘I want a theatre that recognises that the audience is part of the performance’. Speakers like Annabel Turpin from Arc in Stockton suggested that if theatre wants an audience to engage a live audience then why does it pretend the audience is dead. In The Beginning, we are exploring the contract that is fundamental to the ethical consideration of performance, that, according to Alan Read in Theatre and Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance (1993), ‘there is, in the act of theatre, the performer, the audience and you, and it is this tripartite, dialectical nature that demands distinct responses to the ensuing event.’ Read goes on to propose that theatre distils ‘the dialectic of the performer’s ethic: the constant interplay between the “egological” of the individual and the “cosmological” of the world as audience,’ and thus encompasses ‘the urge to be seen as separate but dependent upon the will of the other, the recognition of the observing eye and its relation to the ‘I’ of being human, the listening ear and the ‘here’ of performance’. The Beginning explores the space between the ‘observing eye’ and the ‘here of performance’, the ‘ego’ and the ‘cosmos’. If I wrote the Royal Exchange’s Audience Manifesto, which is beautifully presented and has virtuous intentions, I would stretch its inherent contradictions even further. It wants theatre to be challenging but safe, demanding but entertaining, difficult but somewhere we can relax. I would add to its mutually exclusive list that I want theatre that sits somewhere between the ego and the cosmos.
You and us
We are professionals
We have learned our lines
We are ready to make our entrance
We are ready to begin
And we ask you for the same commitment
This is the crux of the matter. We are asking for a commitment. Of our theatre. Of our audience. Of our readers. If you have made it this far I applaud you. We are asking an audience to come to the theatre and stay there. To take their shoes off. To touch their neighbour’s knee. The Royal Exchange asked its audience and defined the terms of their relationship with them in a kind of marketing and programming pre-nuptial agreement. For The Beginning, I preferred to put my contract in the show. Every audience member is different. One person’s safe space is another’s danger zone. The most important outcome of the You, The Audience was an attempt to change the conversation. As Maddy Costa put it so eloquently, ‘we need to stop asking how to have the conversation and just have it’. And as the lights went up at the Royal Exchange at the end of the day, after talking about breaking the fourth wall in a theatre without one, a conversation began, between artists and audiences, programmers and the public, you and me. It continues. It is a dot dot dot not a full stop. It is only the beginning…