The Audience role in Performance

Theatreroyal applause

This week I have been exploring the world of definitions in the arts, and the expectations we have when we choose one way of looking at an artform or particular aspect of the arts from another.

I work in theatre (with or without a 4th wall) and my understanding of the role of the audience is that it is the missing element which brings a performance alive – whether through its laughter or tears, or its direct interactions with the character. For me, without some form of interaction, the art is left the same as when it was on the page, or alone on a gallery wall.

This week I have been to three pieces which were so so different, but each invited an audience to be there to share in the experience.   The first was the opening night of “Showstopper” now playing at the Apollo Theatre for the next 11 weeks. The second was “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” now playing at the Brick Lane Music Hall which, contrary to its title, is now housed in fantastic splendor in an old church near City airport. The third was a piece of promenade art/theatre which I prefer not to name but rather to draw on various aspects including the creators aim at “finding a theatrical form…so that everyone can access it”. All three were packed with audience. Each engaged with the audience in a different way.

Showstopper does not, and could not, exist without the active involvement of the audience. We are invited to set the path of the show for that night, the style of music which will be used, and to assist in making some of the characters’ most demanding choices along their journey [to kiss or not to kiss for two young lovers for example].   There is a “director” on stage gauging our reaction, helping to shape the energy of the show that night. A show is created before our very eyes, and will never be performed again.   As the final notes of the show with full company rang out, the whole house rose as one block and cheered. It was electric. And we were the charge which created that electricity. That electricity was reflected in the stunning reviews for the show in all the papers and blogs I have read.   I can’t wait to go back.

Yesterday afternoon I slipped in to see the second half of the Brick Lane Music Hall’s current show. This extraordinary enterprise has been run, and hosted by Vincent Hayes MBE in a gloriously converted church since 2003. I had never been and the wonderful MD Kate Young was leading this particular show, and I wanted to see some of the talent on stage, especially some of the graduate Mountview students playing alongside some of the masters of their music hall craft.   This company plays throughout the year packing the lunch/dinner events daily with coach parties and return guests, tourists and theatre folk.   Mr Hayes is not presenting a historical recreation of Victorian music hall, but a living breathing contemporary artform which presents the songs that their particular audience remember from their youth.

For me the stand-out performers were Ben Goffe who has joined his father in the company, and Bill Byrne who delivers his numbers and performance with a rich voice and a real understanding of the material he is sharing, as if for the first time, with his audience.

The audience loved it, and were completely engaged by Mr Hayes , who offered birthday wishes to a 90 year old in the audience, and an old favourite Palladium game on stage “Beat the Clock” recreated with the help of two younger members of the audience.  (Maybe a tad racially uncomfortable in humour for me, but the audience lapped it up).

I had a great chat in the interval with two coach drivers who had brought over 80 people from Clacton that afternoon to the event, and were expert observers of the work which the company do, the joy that they bring, and the welcome their clients get.   Each day a raffle helps to raise money so the company can also go and work in local communities spreading the joy of live theatre and music hall to those who may not have the funds or the mobility to get into the West End or along to the Brick Lane Music Hall.

Once again the show would be nothing without the engagement with the audience, and I am glad I popped in to check out the young professionals in the company. As Kate, and all those experts who teach at drama school, try to drum in to young performers, you never know who is going to see you in a show, and either jot down your name for future reference, or choose to keep a note of someone else they liked.   Mr Byrne was in Kate’s company of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyceum. I must have seen him but didn’t clock his name. I most definitely will now. The audience is an intrinsic part of your performance, whether we are sitting there with a notebook or a cake and 90 candles.

And finally to my third audience experience, hot foot from the Music Hall. I had been recommended by a colleague to see this show, which shall remain nameless. I am told it has had some good reviews. But for me it has put the final nail in one particular coffin that I currently intend never to open again – and in that coffin is any show describing itself as immersive theatre.

I had bought tickets for another immersive show on Sunday night to go to with Kath, and I have asked her to find someone else.

I was mind-numbingly bored with a mix of anger, frustration at being trapped in a journey, and wondering how my friend had got anything out of it.   My added amazement was to realise that I was not the only one in the packed promenading audience that seemed to feel this way. I witnessed, at least I sensed, a collectively bored, silent, distracted audience. I cannot imagine what it must be like to perform night after night to stony faces. As someone in the audience said afterwards to us, you know there is something wrong when you spend the evening studying the ceiling tiles. In my case they were white, many had been removed to allow lights to be hung, but in the main they were in good condition.

At one point I curled up in a ball in the corner of the vast hall, shut my eyes, and listened to the soundtrack music – for a moment I relaxed into enjoying a performance of some pleasure, only to be disturbed as I realised the promenade audience was now moving into my corner of the hall to witness a man force feeding chocolate logs and other cakes down his trousers. I guess he had a different reason than the man later stuffing earth into his trousers, or being unwrapped from a body suit of cling film.

But that’s my own reaction to the show. I’ve had a fascinating e-discussion with one person who got loads of meaning from it.

My concern, and reason for contrasting the three events, is that this immersive theatre piece never once acknowledged, engaged with, or needed the audience to be present. The guards kept us corralled around a single space/event and so we were not able to wander and have our own experience (or find the exit). We were in a 4th wall theatre experience, but promenading and being excluded from any involvement in the journey or the emotional energy of the piece.

Even in a Victorian west end theatre (or Georgian as in the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds pictured above) with a 4th wall play or musical the actors get laughter, clapping and our collective breathe to feed off

I am sure that the artists knew what they were doing, and why. I am sure the vast array of funders knew why they had invested money for us to witness in cold silence.   I just know that I need some joy in my life, some sense of understanding and empathy with the characters on stage.

There was one recorded speech of a very moving man’s story about feeling he was holding back his wife from future happiness after he returned from the armed forces a damaged man. This touched me. But I need to feel I am being changed for the better as a member of an audience in a performance for more than 3min in a 2hr promenade.

Maybe, with my MA hat on, this will lead me to try and look at definitions of “performance” and “performance art” and “live art” and “theatre” and “audience” and “engagement” in the strategies of those funding bodies who make decisions about the support for subsidized projects. And then to reflect on how my own strategy of choosing work might be influenced.

Hey, look on the bright side, I have gained back 2hrs of my life that allows me to go see a writer’s Latin American scratch night at Rich Mix part of the La Casa festival.



  1. Great and interesting blog Chris. As an artist who creates solo theatre, lots of food for thought. Thank you! Agreed, the audience is necessary part of the performance – as my solo theatre director Colin Watkeys says “an essential element…they are the other character in the drama”.

  2. Hi Chris! I do agree that acknowledgement of the audience role is essential – the theatrical even exists because of the artists and audience occupying the same time and space, both are equal participants in creating the experience.
    I don’t know which immersive show you’re referring to (but I do wonder: ‘why write a review and not say who you’re reviewing?’!), but I have sometimes found that it’s the shift of power that gives an audience more autonomy in their experience of the event that can discombobulate those more accustomed to sitting and viewing in the televisual mode.
    I saw Circumference’s debut show ‘Shelter Me’ earlier this year, and loved the experience – which, very pointedly, generated feelings of isolation and inclusion as part of the dramaturgical intent – but I know it didn’t work for everyone!

    This kind of theatre feels like one needs to add a ‘visiting an art gallery’ bow to the ‘watching theatre’ hat. And that extra level of engagement can make it even more enjoyable!


  3. I only see theatre from the audience side, but would agree that sometimes what makes a show is the audience. Some of the best shows I have been to have included some audience participation or has engaged the audience in other ways that you cannot help but join in. Along similar lines to Showstoppers I adored Peter Pan goes wrong – I honestly thought I was going to die before the end it was so funny!! I am sure the audience reaction must feed into the cast (although I do have to admire how they keep a straight face night after night seeing our faces creased with laughter!). On a side note, I find it hard at some shows who do not give the audience a chance to applaud and show their appreciation scene after scene. Blood Brothers springs to mind, there are so many scenes where they deserve applause and yet they launch straight into the next with no pause and I always feel guilty!

  4. Thanks so much for your thoughts – I was trying not to review the show, but more to explore my feelings. That was my reason for choosing to avoid naming. Maybe that’s me being chicken and not nailing my colours to the mast, and maybe I would have done so if I had found a shed load of reviews saying this was the best thing since sliced bread. Then I can happily say I had a different reaction. I do tend to cheer loudly and boo-hoo under my breath. Guess that’s why I take on the role of reviewer with such reluctance.

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