Where is the Audience?

Originally written for Exeunt.

The question that forms the title of this column might sound like a strange one. The audience are out there surely, in the dark, occasionally punctuated by the odd surreptitiously scribbling critic. They are a vital part of the circuit, without which theatre and performance would not be able to fire. They constitute theatre’s purpose, its immediacy, the second half of its violently beating heart.

Yet I wonder if the audience, robbed of light, are failing to be seen. On Monday evening I attended the latest Platform event as part of the Bush Theatre’s RADAR festival of new writing, an event entitled “how is critical discourse keeping pace with contemporary theatre?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the terms in which this question was framed, the contributions – from Sean Holmes, Andrew Haydon, Ramin Gray and Maddy Costa – were centred on interrogating the directions in which both critical discourse and contemporary theatre might be heading and how they might or might not be in step with one another. And those contributions were thoughtful and nuanced and exciting and made me want to start new conversations.

In all of these many heady conversations that I and others have been participating in over the last few months, however, there is a nagging absence. It acts as a black hole, the latent subject around which all our discussions revolve and to which they are irresistibly drawn, but that does not quite show itself. Just as they find themselves shrouded in darkness in the auditorium, the audience have remained barely visible in these discussions, a constant yet silent presence whose lack of visibility only became fully clear to me after it was raised in two separate conversations following the RADAR Platform. Where is the audience in this dialogue?

Being a big fan of conversation – as my friends can no doubt exasperatedly attest to – the thought that critics and theatremakers might be starting to talk more to one another can only be a good thing. But while we alternate between knocking heads and sharing ideas, the very people for whose benefit we’re loudly wrangling might be hovering awkwardly over our shoulders, struggling to find a way in.

At another panel talk I recently attended, I sat stranded in the tides of discussion, uncharacteristically tongue-tied and unable to navigate a route into the conversation. That wasn’t the fault of anyone speaking, but I’d hate for my own excited immersion within the current bubble of critical discourse to make others feel that same sense of marooned dislocation. The bubble is delicate and beautiful, but it might also be exclusive and eventually stifling. After all, there’s only so much air to go around.

It strikes me as ironic that the Platform at the Bush, in which the audience were curiously quiet, was followed later that same evening by the inclusive powerhouse of Kieran Hurley’s Beats. An exhilarating mash-up of storytelling and techno music set to the backdrop of the rave culture of the early 1990s, Hurley’s play hinges tantalisingly on the idea that a live gathering of people might be something inherently radical. It’s an act of immediate togetherness that seems ever more subversive in an age of digital connection that has both expanded and fractured human relations. Set against the emailing, the tweeting, the blogging, the simple idea of collecting in one physical location to share a fleetingly live experience becomes something that breaks the norm, interrupting the electronic noise at the same time as it contributes to it.

As I felt while watching Beats, a belief in the power of theatre must also be a belief in the potential of the shared space and the collective experience. At an earlier Platform event as part of RADAR, which responded to the provocation “one idea that could change our theatrical landscape”, Chris Goode offered up the possibility of “making the space for something to happen in”. Since being generously invited into rehearsals by Greyscale earlier this year, I’ve come to agree with Chris that the site of process is often more interesting and exciting than the “finished” (note the scare quotes) work. I’m utterly, giddily seduced by the fragile magic of the rehearsal room. Setting aside my own desires, however, perhaps what we ought to be looking for is a space – either literal or figurative – that can include everyone; a space that might, as Chris suggests, “scuff the distinctions between process and product, and artist and audience”. Isn’t that the space that we (in which I include both critics and makers) should be really interested in creating?

But before we all berate ourselves too much, perhaps the kernel of a solution to this issue of including and engaging the audience was already there, in the speeches and provocations at the Bush and the enthusiasm- and wine-fuelled conversations in the bar afterwards. At one point during her contribution, Maddy Costa highlighted the US site Culturebot, its guiding concept of “critical horizontalism” and its dedication to a response that is “the continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist”. That dialogue that the artist has initiated is surely a dialogue with the audience of the piece, a dialogue in which the critic has a role as both a participant and an enabling force. Critics’ conversations with theatremakers, whatever form those conversations might take, are not exclusive duologues; for the health of the discussion and of the art form, we need to get everyone talking.

Of all the speeches made on the stage of the Bush Theatre on Monday evening, the one in which the audience figured most heavily was given by Sean Holmes. Based on his experience at the Lyric Hammersmith, he spoke of audiences that were hungry, starved of something that British theatre is not currently providing them with – a ravenous desire that is not reflected in mainstream criticism, but that perhaps in fact those audiences don’t mind about not seeing mirrored there. It’s a hunger that theatres and makers should be striving to feed, and that for the most part I think they are striving to feed. But that shouldn’t let theatre criticism off the hook. How do we turn on the lights, get talking and find the food to satisfy that appetite?