by Admin

A student matinee of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

As the lights finally dim and the curtain rises, a hush can come over an audience. Stoic and silent, many an assembly has sat in reverential quiet until an intermission (if there is one) offers a respite from the silent adoration. Save for a few quick but polite laughs, you have a crowd of Miss Manners-approved spectators.

But who dictates how we’re allowed or expected to react to the very human experience of the theatre?

More theatres are introducing the notion of letting audiences come as they are, to engage authentically with the work. Whether that means clapping in affirmation, vocalizing, or continuing to sit quietly, all are welcome in today’s theatre spaces. This embrace of the human experience can transform a theatre from a buttoned-up, stoic, and WASPy church to a place of energetic joy and sometimes pain—a theatrical practice that stems from communities of color.

“It starts in the tradition of church,” said Nate Jacobs, the founder and artistic director of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota, Fla. “Where most of us get our first social training and development is from sitting on the pews of the church, and grandmother looking over and making sure that you don’t get too out of hand. But you definitely are allowed to express yourself in most Black churches verbally and physically.” Indeed, Jacobs said, visible or vocal reactions to what’s going on are so natural in the Black community that no one talks about them. That’s just how it is.

The opposite also rings true. As a white theatregoer raised in an almost all-white Catholic church, my first socialization took place in a context that reinforced individual silence combined with en masse participation. Even after three decades of life, I am just starting to feel comfortable engaging with the action onstage, albeit in miniature, affirming ways, like nodding or quietly uttering “mhm” in agreement.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau addressed this merger of church and theatre in a 2015 American Theatre article detailing an Off-Broadway encounter with a theatregoer who had more restrictive views of so-called “theatre etiquette,” and who greeted Morisseau, as she laughed and clapped along with a play’s onstage choir, with the whispered request to “keep it down.” This was hardly an isolated incident, Morisseau wrote. It led her to craft the “Playwright’s Rules of Engagement,” a list included as an insert to the program that she has included in subsequent productions of her plays. This list of rules—more allowances than restrictions, in fact—has continued to follow Morisseau’s work since, and has inspired other theatres and theatremakers along the way. Examples include: “You are allowed to laugh audibly. This can be church for some of us, and testifying is allowed. This is also live theatre and the actors need you to engage with them, not distract them or thwart their performance.”

Permitting audiences to enjoy a show as they see fit is something that Christopher Moses, associate artistic director of Alliance Theatre, sees as vital to breaking down barriers for audience attendance. After all, who would want to return to the theatre if engaging authentically is met with glares or hushed reprimands?

“We are doing as much as we can to remove barriers to audiences enjoying the show,” Moses said. “We really try hard to limit the times we’re saying, You cannot do this, you cannot do that. We do even go so far as to warn our companies when they come to the Alliance that our audiences tend to be loud and engaged—but don’t mistake that for being rude or disrespectful.”

It can be challenging to say what becomes an inappropriate reaction when you’re part of an audience. In speaking to Moses, I suggested that perhaps the difference is whether the reaction is engagement or interaction—responding to what is onstage rather than trying to be part of the happening. For example, no one blamed Wendell Pierce for halting Death of a Salesman on Broadway when some patrons in the front of the orchestra section began to pointedly interrupt the show. On the other hand, some audience members thought that environmental protesters who disrupted a recent Broadway revival of An Enemy of the People were part of the ecologically minded staging.

At Los Angeles’s East West Players, the longest-running and largest Asian American theatre, audiences’ reactions tend to match the tone of what they’re watching. Kevin Johnson-Sather, EWP’s general manager, said that the engagement of the largely Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community reflects their respect and appreciation for what’s onstage.

“Because this gratitude is mutual and community-based, audiences are sensitive to what the production asks them,” Johnson-Sather said. “In our show last winter, The Brothers Paranormal, a Thai family and an African American family experience frightening and mysterious visits from the departed. The production asked audience members to believe, even if just for the time they were in the theatre, that the paranormal was real. Thus, the screams and gasps from the audience were essential to the production.”

If the theatre industry writ large is trying to break down the idea that theatre spaces aren’t for everyone, encouraging folks to respond naturally is part of that process. For Black theatres, it’s simply part of the equation.

At Westcoast Black Theatre, Jacobs gets a lot of questions about how to be in a theatre. Folks who don’t attend a lot of live theatre may have the notion that there is a “proper” way to behave and express. Jacobs said he often invites theatre newcomers as his guests to shows to put their minds at ease about being there. He often fields two or three calls from guests before the show asking about how to dress. Jacobs explained that for a lot of first-time theatre attendees, it’s a whole new social experience, and he wants them to be as comfortable as possible.

Artistic director Sharon Graci voiced a similar thought in a recent American Theatre interview. Graci gets similar questions from folks, who call in to PURE Theatre in Charleston, S.C., and ask, “What should I wear?” or “How should I dress?”—questions that, Graci said, boil down to them simply asking: How should I come to be with you?

“They’re doing something that they have never done before, in a place they have never been,” Graci continued. “It is a tiny act of bravery that deserves our highest respect. Our answer is always: Come as you are. All are welcome.”

Likewise, Johnson-Sather said that EWP has been making concerted efforts to make theatre more accessible by implementing the Access Ticket program. Not only does this effort sell any tickets for $15, it specifically offers seats in the front and back rows of the orchestra. This, he explained, brings younger audiences and school groups closer to the action by removing the barrier of cost and encouraging of engagement.

“What we’ve seen is more enthusiasm and involvement during our shows, because folks previously unable to attend are given premium seats with the message, you belong here too,” Johnson-Sather said.

Jacobs explained that when audiences look around and see other folks dressed a certain way or behaving a certain way, like being silent, it can make them feel they aren’t supposed to be there. While Westcoast is a Black theatre company, only about 30 percent of its audience is Black, as the area is predominantly white. But the quality of immersion at Westcoast shows is quite apparent, even if it sometimes takes white audiences a while to warm up to a more responsive posture. Jacobs has watched this happen many times from his perch behind the audience.

“They begin to like it; they think it’s cool,” Jacobs said of audience members who seem initially uncomfortable with this kind of engagement. “It makes them more relaxed and not posh or stiff, you know, conventional theatregoing.” To be clear, he added, those audiences “never get loud. They won’t. They want to…But you see the smile on their face. You see the calmness come over them and a shaking of the head sometimes, or an, ‘Oh my God, this is cool.’ I think we are adapting that typical theatregoer audience.”

Of course, encouraging audiences to be themselves in a theatre space won’t fix the deeper lack of diversity and inclusion in the American theatre. And while the transition from quiet-unless-deemed-appropriate to express-yourself-welcome-home seems well and good, theatres should consider some things before jumping in. Moses suggested, as a start, that theatres try to limit how often they’re asking their audiences not to respond. That includes challenging the notion of theatre etiquette.

“If the engagement is motivated around the story, it’s never going to bother me,” Moses said, “as long as safety is not at risk. I just think the harder we make it for people to enjoy this experience, the more we’re going to push people away from this art form.”

Moses also indicated the importance of front-of-house staff in curating this embracing environment. Their job shouldn’t be to tell people not to respond; they should only get involved if something gets truly out of hand. We don’t have to teach people how to act in a theatre, Moses explained, because “everyone knows how to listen to a story. It’s the one thing that we’re all born with, and I think the more we can realize that, the less we’re going to focus on what is ‘proper’ etiquette.”

In Johnson-Sather’s view, the onus for inviting audiences to engage (or not) extends beyond the theatre house staff. The conversation must to begin with programming: As the demographics of audiences are changing, the programming needs to do the same, and those changes can dictate the ways we engage as an audience. The conversation extends to artists as well. Johnson-Sather pointed to Jeff Liu, the director of Brothers Paranormal, who specifically wanted the first few rows of the audience to scream. Johnson-Sather suggested that theatre companies ask their audiences a handful of questions before making any significant changes.

“Are there responses you, as an audience member, want to have during a show and feel like you can’t?” he proposed as a potential survey question. “What’s stopping you? What are you missing from the theatrical experience? What do you love about being an audience member in our theatre?”

What can be difficult for theatres to navigate is differentiating when a show calls for engagement explicitly, as with Brothers Paranormal, or when audiences are left to negotiate this line for themselves. Moses said the hardest thing the Alliance deals with is how to bring in “small, intimate shows in the small, intimate spaces.” How to realize the potential for audience engagement without being overbearing is something the theatre is still figuring out.

Sincerity is the most crucial element in breaking down barriers between theatres and their public. Theatre companies must “mean what they say and say what they mean,” Jacobs said. Audiences won’t be fooled, he said, when an initiative is a Band-Aid, not a real solution.

The bottom line: Theatres have a responsibility to make everyone feel welcome in the space. As theatre audiences diversify, this will demand diverse approaches. There is still room for us quieter theatregoers, but we are no longer the only or the dominant audience theatres have a mandate to serve.

“Even me being at a Black theatre institution, I have to be very honest and sincere about what we’re doing here in our theatre,” Jacobs said. “To let the Black community know we are dedicated to propagating our culture, and yes, you are welcome. You are the ones that are being celebrated on this platform: your stories, your histories, your cultures, your heroes. So, yes, you’re welcome.”

Amanda Finn (she/they) is a Chicago-based freelance theatre, travel, and lifestyle writer. They write theatre reviews for the Chicago Reader and Newcity whenever they’re not gallivanting around the world.

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