Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
The below essay was originally written as a guest post for the League of Chicago Theatres blog.
Theatre people refer to it as the “fourth wall.” It’s the name for the barrier that exists between the audience and the stage, keeping the imaginary world of the play separate from the real world of the patron. From your seat, you can watch as scenes from a reality that once was, or never was, or could one day be, unfold into narrative and then disappear. The most harrowing or private moments of the lives onstage occur as if unobserved by prying or judgmental eyes. The fourth wall turns the stage into a terrarium, of sorts, situated behind one-way glass. Usually, you won’t even hear it spoken of unless it’s being broken, and the worlds of actor and audience allowed to intermingle; to spill across into each other.
It’s also a lie. The actors know the audience is there just as much as the audience knows the actors are there. The characters they portray may go through their lives unaware, but the characters are at the mercy of the actors, and the actors wouldn’t even be performing if they couldn’t perceive the audience was there. They would have left the theater already. They would be on their way home, on their way to the bar or some other evening’s entertainment, and the creatures inside the terrarium would be as still and silent as something dead.
When you watch a character in a farce delay their next sentence until the laughter dies down—“holding for laughter” in stage parlance—you are aware that this is not for the benefit of the person they’re speaking to in the scene with them. It wouldn’t be. The other character can hear them. In that scene there are only incidental and appropriate sounds, and none of those sounds are occasional roars from some unseen audience. The delay is for you, the audience, and only for you. The characters onstage exist in a world where it isn’t unusual or disconcerting to interact with somebody who peppers their conversation with lengthy pauses.
The point being: the fourth wall—a true, ironclad fourth wall—isn’t really ever there, and the theatre is more interesting for it.
Even the most rigidly choreographed musical will change, night after night, based on the interplay between performers and audience. Every play onstage can be broken down into a series of moments, and in each of those moments there are several ways the audience can react…and each of those reactions will, inevitably, influence the total experience of the performance. It’s rare for audience members to attend multiple showings of the exact same production, but if they did, they’d definitely begin to notice the differences between an actor performing in front of a lively, responsive house, and the same actor performing to the sounds of quiet consideration. Both performances will be different than the one given before a group that is openly hostile.
This is why a movie or television show can be broadcast to an empty room but a piece of live theatre that does so is nothing more than another rehearsal. The audience is always a part of the production. Your audible sobs, your involuntary blasted guffaw, even your angry outbursts and stomps up the aisle, these are what you contribute to the performance that evening. This is why you are necessary. Consequently, this is also your responsibility. Going to the theater is an action, and you agree from the moment the lights dim that you will happen as much to the show as the show will happen to you.
And applause is nice, of course. Everybody likes applause. The satisfying snaps of flesh and bone, oxygen awash in endorphin, this is certainly appreciated.
But then there’s “huh.”
And there’s “hmm.”
There’s “oh,” and “aha,” and “wow.”
There’s that disapproving “tch” noise, or that sharp “fffff” inhalation like you just brushed against a hot tea kettle.
These other, these bits of understood shorthand gibberish, these are more profound, more human, than simple approval. These are the sounds of somebody listening, and possibly they are the sounds of an entire perception of the world being slightly rearranged. And to the actor onstage when that happens, it can mean more than the longest ovation ever received.
The greatest compliment you can give any artist is your attention.