I got two comments on my last post (which you can find here) that I want to respond to in-depth. Let’s dive right in.
Robin Kerr: “…The feeling (sic) that you are describing are real, and accurate – but I don’t think you should be looking for someone to blame (whether it is us onstage, or the culture of your audience) Even challenging ourselves to try harder is still just an expression of your emotions – rather than an insight that you can use to bring about change.”
Anonymous: “…I wonder: do you ever notice the non-bored looking ones in the front? The ones that can’t stop staring straight into your eyes in admiration? What would you say to them?”
What would I say to them, indeed.
In Vancouver where I was raised there are a lot of spiders. Generally the ones you see are garden spiders that make big pretty webs exactly at face height so you can walk straight into them while you are going to your car in the morning and wake the neighbourhood with your screams, but once in a while you’ll see what is soothingly known as a wolf spider. Wolf spiders are large, hairy, and fast. They don’t spin webs which means they like to be low, on the ground, and they hang out almost exclusively in The Last Fucking Place You Want Them To. I’ve found them in sinks, in hallways, in my room; I’ve turned around, then turned back one second later to find one sitting three feet away from me like it’s auditioning for Scream 8 (get it?!). But here’s the thing about wolf spiders: when you first see them they are never moving. They are hunters, and they hunt by waiting. The moment that you see the wolf spider is always a shock. Your brain will immediately think something like oh my god that is my hallway and there is a monster in my hallway and the monster was there all along CALL THE POLICE
At this point you have two options.
If you’ve dealt with wolf spiders before you know that it won’t move if it doesn’t have to. You can calmly keep it in your view as you back away slowly, slowly, and then you can slowly roll up a newspaper and swat it, or drop a bowling ball on it, or walk outside and drive your car through the wall of your house to crush it, or if you own a lot of Lululemon and eat at the Naam you can trap it under a glass with a piece of paper and sing to it or buy it tiny dresses or whatever it is you people do. The point is that the first option is to keep it in sight and deal with it calmly.
You can also take the second option, which is to do what years of being sheltered from the primal terror of predators makes you want to do. You can let out a sound like WAAAAAAAAAEOEOOOEAOEEEE!!!!!!!! and do a headfirst dive through the nearest window, which means the spider is going to run incredibly fast into some one-centimetre crack between the floorboards or into the wall or if you’re really lucky under your bed, and at that point your day is ruined. You know the spider is there, it’s in the room, but you can’t see it anymore. You’re going to have to spend the next hour chasing it around trying to get it out in the open again, or worse, you’re won’t find it at all and you’ll have to go to sleep hoping you don’t wake up to find it setting up a rec room in your right nostril. You can’t do anything in your house without looking around every five seconds to see if the spider is making its move. The spider owns you now.
Let’s go on a little thought experiment together. You’re an actor. You’re in a show. You’re at places. You’re standing in the wings. What is it you want? I’m not talking about your character, I’m talking about you, the human being, right now.
If you’re a less experienced actor then maybe what you want is to act really well, which means you’re going to go out there and try to do stuff, or worse, pretend to do stuff instead of just doing stuff, and at that point no one can help you. However, if you’ve huffed and puffed your way through enough shows you’re probably a little less selfish/insecure/afraid, so instead you want to go out there and communicate the play to the audience.* Your job isn’t to “act well”, it’s to communicate the play. That’s what you intend to do when you step foot on the deck.
So you step foot on deck. You’re going through the actions of the play. Then, during a Very Important Scene where you are really giving it you look out in the audience and see someone texting with a bored expression on their face.
Stop. Close your eyes right now. Vividly picture this moment. Anyone who has ever performed onstage or anyone who has ever spoken in front of people knows this moment. See the glare of the bright lights, feel the heat of those lights, see the small glow from the phone screen palely illuminating this person’s face, see their heavy eyelids, feel the exact moment that you realize they don’t care about you. What’s your first reaction?
I’d be willing to bet that 95% of you felt anger, or annoyance, or one of the hot, red emotions, the kind of thing that you feel when you see someone yelling at their dog in public or when some shitty teenager doesn’t give up a bus seat to an elderly person, the kind of scalding white fury your body gives you when there is a wrong to be righted. I feel it sort of behind my eyes, like someone has just tugged my entire scalp backwards. You don’t control this reaction, it happens to you, and now it is in full swing. You turned around and saw the spider, and now you have two options.
Here’s the million dollar question: why do we get angry when the audience isn’t paying attention? Why does our autonomic nervous system think that “getting angry” is the best reaction to someone ignoring us? What does “getting angry” help us accomplish, what goal does it help us attain?
The answer is obvious, of course: getting angry will be incredibly useful if we are going to lose our shit on that person. Our anger will quiet the small, reasonable voice in our head that says “do not throw that audience member out the window” and will send energy to our rage centre so that we may with more strength and speed throw that audience member out the window. It doesn’t prepare us to confront that person in a rational discussion of minds, it prepares us to destroy that person.
This is the fun part: if we did take a second to throw that person out the window, dump a bucket of ice water over our heads, and then flawlessly resume the show, did that help us communicate the play? No, it didn’t, and in fact it probably seriously damaged our ability to communicate the play, as the rest of the audience is now scared of us/calling an ambulance/picking glass out of their scotch mints.** So if our bodies’ natural reaction isn’t helping us achieve our stated goal, what is it doing? Again, the answer is clear: we are attempting to preserve the status that our position onstage gives us, which this person and their BBM habit have undermined. We get mad because we’ve been put in a lower position than we think we deserve. We want more respect than they’re giving us. What’s revealed by the anger isn’t the bad behaviour of the audience member, it’s the bad mentality of the actor.
We think we deserve to be watched with that quiet admiration that anonymous very beautifully described above, but we feel we deserve it from everyone, all the time, and it is the audience’s problem if we’re not getting it. We actually have the balls to call an audience that laughs at all the right places and sits in their seats and doesn’t cough a “good” audience, and an audience that is restless and tired a “tough crowd” or a “quiet house”, and we always rush to qualify with something like “but I think they’re still with us”, but in none of these terms we use to define the quality of the audience do we allow our own performances to enter into the equation. Oh sure, we get insecure and frustrated with how we’re doing “that night”, you often hear people say “I’m really not feeling it” or “I’m really feeling it” when they’re giving the exact same performance you’ve seen dozens of times, but no one ever says “hmm, I don’t think I’m getting through to those younger guys in the front, they’re bored, I’m going to try to include them more”, and that is fucked up.
If your real goal is to communicate the play to the audience, the real people who are really in front of you, then seeing someone answer a text message is a gift. It is a clear signal that this member of the audience is not receiving your play, and you simply need to adjust accordingly. It’s the first rain of the year showing you where the holes in the roof are. If, however, you’re up on stage to be stared at by rapt admirers, then a person texting in the front is an abject failure that shatters your own perceptions of your performance. A play is a living thing, it’s not a sculpture, you don’t unveil it in front of an audience every night and let them passively look at it. It’s an active pursuit, and adjusting for specific audiences that have vastly different temperaments and attention spans is not just part of our job, it is all of our job. The hours of rehearsal time, the hours in makeup and wardrobe, the hours promoting ourselves, all of it is just to put us in the position where we can tell an audience a play well. If we allow ourselves to show up on the night and not use 100% of our capacities to communicate the play to those people, then we have failed. We do the play so that the audience can see it. There is no other purpose.
When you turn around and see the spider you have two options: you can attempt to save yourself or you can calmly deal with the problem at hand. Here’s the last thing: even if the spider scares the shit out of us, the spider is at its least powerful when you can see it. When you have it in your view, even if being near it makes you uncomfortable and terrified, you have the power. When you let it out of your sight, when it comes upon you by surprise, it takes the power back. If you can keep the spider in your sight, you can do what needs to be done. If you can keep the spider in your sight, the spider can’t hurt you.
And to anonymous: The first thing I would say is I’m sorry. The second thing I would say is that I will do my best to be worthy of the attention that you are so good to give. And the last thing I would say is thank you, truly and sincerely, thank you.
*This phrase and much of the attendant assumptions about its importance come directly from David Mamet’s True And False, which I have also written about here. The idea of communicating the play to the audience runs throughout the book but the exact phrase can be found on pages 4, 9, 48, 80, and 89.
**Note: this does not apply to audience members who are actively distracting the rest of the audience, as humiliating them will make you look like a hero, eg. this and this.