“ I've never been to see a play before,” she said.
After I reassured her that not only was that ok, it was fairly normal, we talked a little about her desire to go and her fear of not knowing what she is supposed to do as an audience member. She was not that articulate about her fear, but that is basically what she was expressing; not knowing how to watch a play, what to look for, or how to appropriately respond.
“It’s ok if you don't like it,” I told her.
That is a hard truth to swallow – even for a seasoned theater-goer. But it is true. In a world where too many shows receive an automatic standing ovation regardless of the quality of the production, it can be very confusing to a novice theater-goer to see an audience respond with emphatic support of a less than mediocre production. Imagine going to the theater for the first time, feeling bored and confused by a poor performance, and then the play is given a resounding endorsement by your fellow audience members. Wouldn't you be put off? Wouldn't you assume from the reaction of your peers that this was a great performance and that it was your fault for not enjoying it?
Given that, would you ever want to go back?
How can we as theater-makers foster audience members who are excited to be there? How do we grow great audiences full of discerning people who have sought us out? The answer is it starts with you. Take a friend who has never or rarely goes to see plays with you the next time you go to see a friend’s show. They will feel special because they can say “I know someone in this play” – it forms a deeper connection. Stick around after and talk to the friend; let them thank you for coming. But then take the friend you brought to a place where you can talk freely about what you just saw. Probe them – get to the meat of the play. Or if the play was bad, share that – but in a way in which you take responsibility for your opinion. Or if the play had no substance, acknowledge that and move on to talking about the quality of the performances or the impressiveness of the set.
In theater commentary there is often talk about the need to train an audience how to take in a play. The problem with this statement is that it puts all the blame on the audience. It implies that if the audience did not respond in the way you wanted them too that they did not get it or they do not know how to watch a play. This of course is untrue and while everyone is entitled to their own opinions, a play’s accessibility is the result of the work and choices of the theater-makers.
No amount of talk-backs or program notes will encourage further participation by audiences. There has to be a personal invitation to engage in the shared experience of a live performance. Show them why it is important to you. Share why you find delight in ephemeral moments that happen on the stage. A deeper appreciation of the theater is a wonderful gift to give a friend.