Guest Blogger: Scott Wesley Slavin on the Actor-Audience Relationship

NIAMy friends, Scott and Valerie, just concluded 25 performances of Naked in Alaska at Edinburgh. 25 shows in a three week span. For those of you who follow me and have been reading my articles this summer on festivals for The Write Teacher(s) (and if you haven’t, click HERE), I have been exploring theatre in the Festival setting. I have just completed my fourth festival with the New York Fringe Festival and am now embarking on EstroGenius Festival. About two weeks ago, Scott posted the below. I was really moved by his words as he really is able to experience the actor-audience relationship. Scott is the director/stage manager/technical director/wizard of Naked in Alaska. Once he and Valerie are at the theatre, he is in the booth behind or above or to the side running the show. And observing. Many thanks to him for giving me permission to repost it here.

Running the tech for Naked in Alaska every day for the past two weeks has allowed me to experience 14 different audiences to the same show. It’s given me so many opportunities now to wonder about the actor-audience relationship. What is it? What are our responsibilities–on both sides? How can we each more graciously reach across the perceived divide and nurture a more fulfilling partnership during these brief hours that we spend together? What, in the end, is the greatest potential of this relationship?

“There is an implied contract,” author Ed Hooks writes, “under which the person in the audience willingly suspends his disbelief in the pretending on stage… so that he can empathize with the actors on stage. The audience for a theatrical production is not a voyeur. It is a participant, part of an active relationship. Each side brings something to the event, and they pretend together. This is why the events are called ‘plays.'”

In the seven years I’ve been with Valerie Hager, however, she’s taught me that the “active relationship” on the part of the audience goes far beyond “suspending disbelief.” Valerie’s the most giving audience member I’ve ever met: laughing, crying, whooping, standing, yelling out encouragement if need be. She knows in her bones how much positive energy and sustenance her empathic, vocal responses give to the performer, and how that transforms the performance, and thus the show, for everyone.

We’ve had some houses here in Edinburgh that roar with laughter, exhale with grief and empathy, and clap loudly with tears streaming down their cheeks at the end; other houses, just as large, who barely make a sound, save for an echoing cough or the thud of a seat flipping up and down. From the artist’s perspective, this can be incredibly unnerving (“What did I do differently tonight? Was something wrong? Did I do my job well? Did I do things that made me/my character unlikeable tonight?”); however, when that passes, I’m mostly just curious.

Do certain audiences come into the theater with a kind of aggregate nervous system that is energetically either open to the show that evening or closed to it? And, if so, how does that happen–what contributes to it? Is there anything an artist can do to massage a seemingly tight, closed audience into a relaxed, open one? Are there ways to welcome audiences so they may feel more free with their emotions and their responses once the show begins? How can we be more compassionate with ourselves after a challenging audience leaves and we have that sinking feeling in our hearts of “What the f*ck just happened?”

I don’t have any answers, and I admit to not being nearly as giving as Valerie is as an audience member. But I’m also learning that I may have a greater responsibility than I previously would have acknowledged when I sit in the dark watching another human being perform before me: that the relationship is more a two-way street than a one-way one, and that, like most human relationships, the more I am wiling to give, even at some risk to my own comfort and anonymity and “process,” the more–the very much more–I’ll likely get back. I may just get back my self.

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