Your show got great reviews, there are more than a few butts-in-seats, the audience gives standing Os, and your actors love you, the ________ (producer, director, playwright). So why do you feel like you’re paddling upstream with a teaspoon? What’s the problem?
Your audience is sleeping through your play.
Since I became a playwright, I’ve gotten into the habit of watching my audiences so that I can understand what lands, what misses, what I need to do next to shape their experience. As I’ve mentioned over the years, I also see a lot of other people’s theater. A LOT of theater. A lot of well-received theater. Maybe I’m just a tough nut, but because plays don’t grip me very often, don’t require more of me than observation from the vantage point of a butt in a seat, I have a fair amount of time to ruminate and observe. And I’ve watched almost every audience snoozing the way they do in front of the TV.
Almost. Every. Audience.
And why are there directors? (Yes, a digression, stick with me and it will pay off.) Directors are a fairly recent phenomenon in the annals of theater history. Did you know that directors as we know them today have existed, as a class, for maybe 100 years? Prior to that there were actor-playwrights and actor-managers and actor-producers who staged plays, but not an offstage artistic visionary guiding and driving a production. In the old days, each actor took responsibility not only for learning their lines and staging, but also for parsing their scripts beat-by-beat and scene-by-scene, understanding their character’s objectives and obstacles and place in the micro and macro societies of the play, understanding society itself. Actors also knew that an arc is a very different thing from the story or plot, and that they bore sole responsibility for their character’s raison d’être, why here, why now, why this tale, for objectives and tactics and activities and actions, desires, antipathies, and urgency.
Today, many actors barely learn their lines in time for production and rely utterly on the director for each nuance, much less the broad character strokes that define theatricality. Why a particular work is a play rather than TV or film is another rant, ongoing of course (the answer seems to be that plays are written because one can find a bunch of actors and a basement and can put them on for little or no money). A play has hopefully many things inherently theatrical, larger than life, magical in more ways than spectacular. A play, a real, true, honest-to-goodness play demands that an audience “get” stuff that isn’t spoken or illustrated, and formulate new synapses SO THAT the story can be told. How? Good dialogue, foremost, but also actors who pay attention to the Body, and not just their own body, but the Body of the play.
Which brings me back to why your audience’s bodies are asleep and they are, whether or not you believe me or have watched them do it.
It’s because you’re making them comfortable.
A theater should not be a comfortable place (hint hint you folks who are keeping the temperature at 72°F, a temp guaranteed to shovel sleepy-dust). It should be a place that provokes and provides opportunities for formation of those new synapses. And actors who present their work as “Look! I learned it! I’m good at it!” are putting your audience to sleep as surely as if they tucked them in with a bankie.
Nowadays, everybody on the business-end of the proscenium arch is “nice.” Bo-ring! I’m not saying that anyone should ever be personally rude, I’m saying that “nice” is the antithesis of Drama, and capital-D Drama is what theaters are meant to be selling. Wait for your cue instead of jumping on it? Boring. Worry that a well-rehearsed fight scene will actually look like a fight? Boring. Stop making your scene-partner respond in a way your character would want their character to because it makes them uncomfortable? BORING. Being onstage shouldn’t be fun for the actors unless you define “fun” as tightrope-walking the Grand Canyon without a net. It should be exhilarating and exhausting. The second an actor feels comfortable on stage is the second the audience drops off (or politely hides their yawn and thinks about after-theater drinks).
You don’t mind that your audience is asleep?
But I DO.