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The Director And His Audience

( Originally Published 1938 )

FOUR FACTORS must be kept in mind as the director embarks, upon the actual labor of restating the printed play in stage terms. These factors are his specific audience, the play he is to present, the stage he is to use, and the acting material available for the casting of the characters. As a necessary portion of his work in preparation, the audience, the play, and the stage will be considered in detail.

The audience is an important factor in molding the composition of the written play and in determining the peculiarities of its presentation at any given time. Despite the obvious truth that an ignorance or a deliberate disregard of an audience may bring disaster, the director frequently gives little thought to this group of people for whom, presumably, the play is given.

The audience is a positive factor in the success or failure of an acted play. If an audience likes a play, it is enthusiastic about it and tells its friends. If it doesn't like the play, the audience doesn't go to the theater; moreover, the dissatisfied audience expresses an adverse criticism to its friends, and such word-of-mouth opinion will generally offset all the advertising and favorable publicity. The audience's expression of its reaction to the play brings either more admission money and more people into the theater or less money and fewer people. And it may, and occasionally does, express itself in a still more positive form by hissing and booing the play, throwing things at the actors, or demanding its money back.

The effect of the behavior of the audience needs, no elaboration. It is an active factor in the success or failure of every play presented. The director should not be reluctant to learn what he can about the reaction of the audience. Something may be learned through the answers to three pertinent questions: What gives an audience an individual will and temper? Why does it go to the theater.? What hap-pens to it as it sits in the auditorium during the playing of a play?

What Gives an Audience an Individual Character?

Any audience, no matter where it is located, has a definite temper, standard of judgment, personality; and any audience, differing from some other in point of time, again shows this individual personality. The personality is what it is because of certain definite molding forces outside the theater and certain others found within the theater. Those outside are such forces as the social and political conditions of the locality and the intellectual and cultural level of the people.

England in 158o was a strong, united nation with a vigorous national spirit and a pride in its great queen; and the political conditions and backgrounds of the time are reflected in the strong, masculine, national plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Presumably, the temper of the audience dictated this type of play. A century later, after the Restoration, there was a period of disillusionment, and the people had no strong faith in their dissolute government.

This condition is revealed in the cynical, decadent plays of Wycherley and Congreve.

In the England of 1600 there were no humane societies, welfare organizations, or Salvation Armies; social interest, as we know it today, was non-existent. Undoubtedly there were social conditions which needed betterment, but the humanitarian spirit was sleeping, and so we find no plays which concerned man's desperate struggle against his social environment. During the nineteenth century the public developed a social spirit and, in consequence, became interested in social themes. The European and American drama from 187o to the present shows a marked change from romantic stories to a thoughtful, realistic portrayal of man and his social problems.

The history of the theater reveals that the political and social ideas brought forth by a particular place or period do help determine the personality of the audience which in turn influences the themes found in the plays of the period.

The intellectual and cultural level of the people, as it is reflected in the likes and dislikes of the audience, would also be made clear through a study of theatrical history. In the England of 1550 the people were still coarse, rough, semi-medieval, with no high sense of culture and but little interest in the intellectual; and in consequence, an audience of this day applauded such a play as Gammer Gurton's Needle. In Paris in 166o the people were of a much higher intellectual level and concerned themselves with cultural and artistic interests; in keeping with these conditions, we find clever intellectual satires like Moliére's Tartu fie and Les Précieuses Ridicules. In London in 1690 we discover a certain amount of intellecutal activity coupled with a decadent culture; and the plays, which are clever and brilliant but cynical, sensual, and scandalous, reflect their public.

There are conditions inside the theater, also, which have their influence in molding an audience, in determining the specific mood, will, likes, and dislikes of the audience. Of these, we will speak briefly of two.

First, the nature of the auditorium has a positive effect on the audience. The old Greek auditorium was composed of hard stone seats standing in the open air and arranged in the form of a semi-circle; it was an auditorium resembling the twentieth-century sports stadium. Such an auditorium, swept by the winds, unprotected from the sun, and located some distance from the acting space, tended to put the audience in a mood for scenes of combat and powerful but simply told stories and seemed to call for oratorical speeches. The modern auditorium, on the other hand, with its comfortable chairs close to the stage, its soft lighting and pleasant temperature, induces a mood for the appreciation of intimate domestic comedies, slight stories, subtle dialogue and the like.

Second, acting traditions and stage conventions have their effect on the audience. At any designated period or place, an audience is accustomed to certain stage practices and certain fashions in acting. The prevailing fashion is generally accepted as right and proper, and other styles are, therefore, wrong; and the plays of a period are written for that style of acting which the audience accepts as the right style.

In the early nineteenth century Talfourd wrote Ion, and Knowles wrote Virginius—plays that called for strenuous declamatory acting and which are unfitted for the naturalistic style. In the latter third of the century, acting and appreciation having fallen to a low estate, the acting was obvious and objective, and the audience, desiring this style, was given The Ticket-of-Leave Man and East Lynne—plays which were written to be acted in this style. Today we have developed a more subtle and realistic style of acting, and our playwrights write their plays for this style because our actors are trained in naturalistic acting and our audiences expect it.

Besides the conditions outside the theater and the ones within, which help determine the personality of an audience, there is a final factor which must not be overlooked: group behavior which becomes operative in a theater audience.

The last word has not yet been written on crowd psychology. No one seems able to foretell the behavior of a theater audience or just how it will accept a particular scene. Indeed, many plays fail because some shrewd producer guesses wrong on this puzzling subject of crowd psychology. Yet, even if much remains to be learned, we can make two useful observations on group behavior within the theater. First, a crowd is less thoughtful, intellectual, and rational than an individual; second, the theater crowd is more easily moved, more readily emotionalized than the individual.

The first observation means that the expression of the audience for the play is less intelligent and more naïve than that of the individual. This can be proved by a visit to a third-rate farce comedy or a cheap motion picture. We go to the theater, sit among the audience, accept the childish story and illogical characters, and probably laugh and enjoy ourselves; whereas, if we read the play in our room, we are probably disgusted, rather than amused, and throw the book aside as beneath our superior intelligence.

Our second observation may also be proved through personal experience. We may attend the theater and find ourselves being moved to pity or horror or tears much more easily than we would be moved by the same performance if we were sitting alone, watching the dress rehearsal. We go to the theater and laugh at jokes which do not sound funny to us when we are listening to them at rehearsal or when they come to us over the radio.

These mental and emotional expressions, which the theater crowd shares with other crowds, play their part as a deter-mining factor in the personality of the audience. Within the theater the director is presenting a play to a group that is less intelligent and more susceptible to emotional response than is the individual.

So, upon even such a brief analysis as we have made, the audience is seen to be a powerful but fascinating personality. Its temper, mood, wishes, and reactions are dependent on conditions outside the theater, such as the social and political background of the period and the intellectual and cultural status of the people; these qualities are also dependent upon conditions within the theater, such as the physical nature of the auditorium and the contemporary acting style; and outside and underneath these direct influencing conditions, a crowd behavior, operative in the theater, prescribes that the audience shall be of a lower level mentally, of a coarser fiber morally, and of a more emotional and sentimental nature than the individual. A director, having arrived at his conclusion that the individuals who make up his audience are intelligent and cultured enough to appreciate a certain play, must always remember what happens to individuals when they become a part of the crowd.

This may help us to understand why an audience is what it is; and from what we have discovered, we may attempt a statement about the general influence an audience has in the composition of the written play: It is the audience that usually determines the general theme of the play and often the specific treatment of the theme.

It was the audience that dictated the romantic themes of 185o and the themes on the growing independence of woman during the early twentieth century. It was the audience who decreed that the sentimentality of 187o should be without restraint and who decided that the sentiment of 1935 should always be accompanied by a gangster swagger. The audience of 187o wanted romance with violets and soft music; the audience of 1935, to quote a newspaper announcement of a play, wanted romance "with a sock in the jaw."

Why Does an Audience Go to the Theater?

We cannot answer this question in any single, simple statement. As we begin to think of the many diverse audiences who, from the beginning of recorded history, have sat or stood before an acting space and have looked upon the performances being enacted before them; as we travel in our thoughts from the dusty temple theater of India of 1500 B.C. to the Theater Guild Theater in New York in 1938, from the hillside theater of Dionysus in Athens to a little country theater on the plains of North Dakota, from the turbulent, spectacular theater of Marcellus in Rome to the London theater of Shakespeare and Dick Burbage, we shake our heads in bewilderment. Surely the audiences who attended these different theaters had a great diversity of purpose which can never be bound together in a single statement, no matter how general.

We study the Greek audience and conclude that it went to the theater to learn about the will of the gods and to enjoy a work of art; we go to Rome and we say that the Roman public demanded sensation and a representation of indecencies which would excite its passions; we enter a medieval cathedral at the time of a mystery representation and decide that the audience has come together for the good of its collective soul; we watch the behavior of a Spanish audience, during the days of Lope de Vega, and we reason that the good-natured, combative people have assembled because they want romantic excitement and colorful amuse-ment; we become one with an audience at an Ibsen play, and we believe that we have found a group that is attending the theater in order to have its thought focused upon a social or a psychological problem. Do these audiences, as they go to the theater, have any purpose in common ?

We may place the audiences on a common ground in saying that each and all go to the theater because they have a desire for an experience which is not readily found else-where. They continue to go to the theater because the theater gives them the experience that they desire. This experience may be noble or ignoble, spiritual or physical, but it is, nevertheless, an experience.

What about this experience ? Can it be differentiated and defined in any way ? There are two attributes of this theater experience which do differentiate it and tend to give it individuality. People go to the theater, year after year, because the experience is a direct, personal experience. As the action develops on the stage, as the characters struggle and suffer, fail and triumph, the members of the audience are able to make the stage characters' sufferings their own and are able to live in their own thoughts and, especially, in their own emotions, the drama of the character or characters to whom they have given their sympathy.

The second attribute of this experience has been suggested in the last sentence; the experience that the audience receives is an emotional experience.

If with this idea of a personal, emotional experience in mind we again examine the audiences and the theaters we have already listed, we will see that in each case the audience went to the theater for a personal, emotional experience, and, in each case, the theater was able to satisfy the people.

We are not finished with this experience yet, for we find upon further examination that this experience always concerns itself with human life; and we are able to add, with-out great fear of contradiction, that the experience generally concerns itself with what is accepted at the time as some truth about life.

Such a study of the audience is apt to put the work of the director in a different light from that in which it has appeared before. Recognizing that the audience is coming to the play because it desires an experience which is personal and emotional and that this experience shall seem to the audience to be one in which there is some truth about life, no matter how small or trivial or from what viewpoint it is gained, the director sees that his task is to build his play and present it in such a manner that his audience will not be disappointed; that sitting in the auditorium, these people will be granted their experience in the easiest, most effective manner the director's imagination can devise.

What Happens to a Theater Audience?

Thus we arrive at our third question: What happens to an audience as it sits in the auditorium of a theater witnessing a play ? Or, how does it get this experience which it desires ?

We have said that the desired experience has to do with life. One may have an experience of life through reading a novel or looking at a picture, but not so vivid and impressive an experience as he may have through watching an acted play. A tear shed between the covers of a book is seldom as effective as a tear shed on the stage. The play concerns a number of human characters who represent real or caricatured men and women. The actor, through a study of the play and perhaps weeks of rehearsing with his director, creates in flesh and blood a personality which represents or symbolizes the character which the dramatist has written in the text.

Secondly, the character is placed in emotional situations, and the actor employs certain symbols which we accept as expressive of the character's emotions. We generally find this strong emphasis on emotion. The audience wants an emotional experience, and the dramatist, recognizing this, has written a play through which this sort of experience will be granted. Emotion creates emotion. An emotional conversation stirs an auditor more than an unemotional one; feeling is engendered; action is created through emotion, not through logical argument over a point. No man could be persuaded to go into battle to defend a geometric theorem or a syllogism; but talk to him about the necessity for defending home or mother—words rich in emotional connotation—and he is likely to have a gun on his shoulder before night-fall.

Therefore, we say, the characters are consciously emotionalized, and the actor, through the mediums of voice, facial expression, gesture, is trained to convey the emotion by means of the symbols which an audience accepts as expressive of the emotion.

The actor, as he portrays the character and expresses the character's emotion, must do one other thing; he must (on the present-day stage) present an illusion which the audience can accept as true to life. When he has added this convincing illusion to clear characterization and expression of emotion, he has done his full duty; and if the director has used his resources well in his restatement of the play, the rest is up to the audience.

If, however, director and actor have done their parts well, the audience will not disappoint them; or, more truly, it will not disappoint itself. The audience wants its experience. It may come to the theater in a passive state of mind and take its seats without any deep feeling in its hearts; but it is, nevertheless, in a receptive mood for experience. The design of the whole play, the use of emotion, the work of director, actors, stage technicians—all tend to draw the audience into the experience.

The curtain rises. The play begins. Active interest sup-plants passive receptivity. The audience begins to feel. It is not long before it allies itself with some sympathetic character. Another scene, and it is living with the character as the character, portrayed by the actor, struggles toward his goal, which is a goal the audience comprehends and approves. Unconsciously, almost imperceptibly, the audience tenses its muscles, inclines its head forward and draws it back, in response to the movements of the character. Now, through living the action with the character, it is having a personal, emotional experience concerning some phase of life; it is receiving the full pleasure of what is inadequately called "seeing a play."

The American Audience

These questions may prompt us to ask a fourth question: What of our American audiences—should we accept what has been said about them as the final word, or should we try to discover more about their specific characteristics before we dismiss this subject?

The American audience comes to the theater for the same general reason other audiences come; it reacts much as people elsewhere react. Plays written and produced in France and Russia are received in much the same way in New York or Minneapolis as they are received in Paris and Moscow. But one point about the American audience needs a word of explanation: the type of experience it traditionally expects to find in the theater. For an understanding of this audience expectation, it may be necessary for us to dip briefly into American theatrical history.

For well over a century after the colonists settled along the eastern seaboard, the theater was looked upon as the chief abiding place of sin, and, as far as laws and Puritan indignation could manage it, acted plays were prohibited. When, in the chaos following the Revolutionary War, the theater gained a precarious foothold, it was still far from being an institution which was looked upon as respectable. For another three quarters of a century the churches inveighed against it, and both the good and the elite shunned it. Thus the theater that grew to maturity in the nineteenth century did not possess an admirable character, was not fostered by intelligent people, was not concerned with the heights and depths of life, and did not make any pretense of being a temple of art. Since the dramatic fare it served was cheap, simple, and shallow, the American, who went to the theater, went for amusement and relaxation; he acquired the habit of having a pleasant, naïve, undisturbing experience in the theater.

Time has brought many changes since the beginning of the twentieth century. The last decades have witnessed the American theater grow in character and intelligence until, at its best, it can now take its place proudly beside the great theaters of the world. Here and there are audiences which have accepted the finer, deeper experiences of the new theater. But habit dies hard, and the old tradition still lingers. Al-though some of us, in our enlightenment, may accept the new theater, may long for the experience to be derived from witnessing a play of Pirandello, Lenormand, or Chekov, and desire to give our audiences this experience, we must remember the two centuries of inadequate and downright bad training our audiences have had. Although we, as directors, may chafe under the public's lack of appreciation and grow angry at what we call its stupidity, we must, to some extent, respect its wishes and its capacity for experience.

In regard to the American audience and its attitude toward the amateur play, we find another point that has some bearing upon our work. Until recently, most amateur plays were badly done. Even today we find far too many amateur presentations consisting of cheap plays, poorly acted, and unimaginatively directed.

Now, when present-day enthusiasm and activity began to manifest themselves, if audiences attended the plays at all, it was necessary for the members to leave their sense of discrimination at home. They bore with our childish efforts with as good a grace as they were able, were wholly uncritical, expected but little, and were not disappointed. This tolerance once may have made amateur performances possible; now it is a bad thing for us. The logic it has fostered in some of us may be expressed as follows: "Our plays have been pretty well attended in the past. Evidently the audience has been satisfied. People have not criticized us and the town papers have spoken well of us. What more do we want to do than we are doing, and what would be gained by greater effort, except a lot of unappreciated hard work?

Such an attitude of tolerance has bred slovenly work in us. It has, here and there, held us from progress. At the present time, with so few commercial companies on the road, the public often has to find its experience in our theaters or go without. Because our plays often do not provide the experience, the audience is beginning to stay away from our theaters. We should no longer depend upon the leniency of our audiences; they will not remain uncritical forever. Here and there, by the artistry and imagination of their presentations, and, by the quality of the acting, directors of amateurs have given their audiences a real theater experience and have made this tolerance no longer necessary. The work of these few directors should be a challenge to the rest of us.

The beginning director needs to study the audience and remember what gives it its individual personality. As he prepares his play for presentation, he should not lose sight of why an audience comes to the theater. And, keeping in mind what takes place in the auditorium during the presentation of the play, he should use his best efforts to give the audience the experience it desires.

As he chooses his play, as he selects his actors, as he works out the production and conducts his rehearsals, his audience —not any audience, not a vague, general audience, but his own particular audience—should always be kept in mind. He should get to know his audience and make it his ally, not his enemy.

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