I am a theatre aficionado, born and bred. From primary school pantomimes to London’s West End; from Elizabethan recitals to grungy European fringe; from Melbourne’s La Mama Courthouse to Vietnamese water puppetry and the Laos national “ballet” (I use that term lightly), there isn’t too much I haven’t dabbled in or wouldn’t be willing to witness. Onstage, backstage or offstage entirely, there’s no atmosphere quite like being in a theatre space charged with thespian spirit. The sounds, smells and energies go unopposed.
It wasn’t until very recently, however, that I really began to think about the actual deed of going to see a performance.
Over the last month Malthouse Theatre hosted a production of Dance of Death, a violent, uproarious, shrewd script about monotonous marriage and dreary demise. Aside from being a brilliant piece of theatre, Dance of Death was also a rather enlightening experience, largely because of the way it was staged. For the entire length of the show the three-person cast was essentially trapped in a glass tank, with audience clusters on either side of the enclosure. This was clearly a design choice geared toward the thematic symbolism of the show. However it also sent my brain spiralling in two directions on the theoretics of theatre.
The first and most obvious concept emphasised by displaying actors in captivity, like animals at the zoo, is the way in which audiences unconsciously objectify them. As much as we might admire actors for their talent, and as much as we might empathise with any given character that they might be portraying, when we go to see a live show – and this goes for music gigs, dance recitals, street busking, and even sporting events alike – we are principally going to gawk at them. Established performance spaces are among the few places in the world where it’s acceptable, let alone encouraged, to actively stare at and scrutinise the behaviour of another person in their direct presence.
Dance of Death, during which none of the players slipped out of character or took a sip of water let alone left the stage for near-on two hours, drew attention to the fact that actors are human beings made into a spectacle, laden with the expectation to be anyone other than who they are in real life.
Of course having a material perspective of an actor during a performance doesn’t make the role of being an audience member any less worthy, and nor does it degrade the actor themself – it is, after all, the very nature of the trade. Actors want to be seen. It’s in their job description.
The second sense of intrigue that Dance of Death aroused in me is the subjective experience of forming a part of a theatre audience.
It isn’t all that uncommon to have an audience divided with the stage in the middle. This manner of staging is called traverse, the upshot being that there are two potential views to be had of the action, and subsequently, that the two sides of the audience are facing each other. Sometimes it’s possible to see the other side of the audience, and sometimes it’s not. Usually it isn’t significant either way. In the case of Dance of Death, the opposing spectators were most definitely visible. Somehow the fact that there was a physical windowpane (two, in fact) between them and myself promoted the ability to stare them down and judge them mercilessly for their responses to the show.
There’s a strange thing about group dynamic that is difficult to notice until you’re outside of it. That thing is a propensity for collective reactionism. Watching the other side of the audience, one begins to realise the extent to which our responses to shocking dialogue or funny physicality depend on the people around us. By singling out audience members and watching them (which would normally be taboo), I noticed people who repeatedly failed to change their facial expressions until they heard the person beside or behind them laugh or gasp. I also noticed people who would begin to smile or cringe, then glance out the corner of their eye, discover that no one else had found the same reason for response, and gently sink back into nonchalance.
Quite apart from that, there was a distinct difference between how the two sides of the auditorium were reacting en masse. There were times when I was aware of guffawing raucously with my half of the theatre whilst the other half remained flinty, and vice versa. Similarly, there were apparently a handful of people sitting on a mezzanine over the prompt side of the stage, unseen, that would intermittently cackle at subtleties, leaving the rest of us startled and perplexed.
Theatre is simultaneously a very objective and very subjective experience, at once personal and communal. We react, we interact, we judge, and we are judged. Oscar Wilde once said that theatre was “the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being”. Whether it’s true or not, it’s certainly a strange and beautiful experience.