Friday, November 4, 2011

Pearls Before Swine: On The Importance of Being a Good Audience

A heard a story years back about the Irish writer, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) that supposedly occurred one night during the opening of his play "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1895). A little old lady sauntered backstage and addressed Oscar saying "Mr. Wilde, I sure hope your play is a success." Without hesitating, the playwright quipped "Mam, what I hope is that the audience is a success!"

My life as a visual artist, took a strange detour during the 1980's into the world of drama. I guess it all began in High School when I wrote and performed a little 10 minute farce I called "Bad Day at Black Rock", a spoof on bad Hollywood westerns of the 50's, during the school's annual crazy week, called The Insanities.

I had never been on stage before and was terrified of standing before a live audience. Nonetheless, with my buddy, David Hitt, we pulled it off, complete with laughs and a healthy applause. Our audience of peers had been forgiving!

Sometime during the 1980's, I began directing the Chicano Teatro (Theater) class at our local community college, part of our Chicano Studies curriculum. I took it over from two earlier instructors. Though I had no real knowledge of drama or theater, other than working with them on the wings for a coupe of years, I winged it for the first years by relying on short one-act plays of Chicano playwright, Luis Valdez, and El Teatro Campesino. In time, I would write and  produce many original one-act plays, skits and  2-3 full-length plays as I became a more competent director. I loved playing cameo roles in many.

I concentrated on a mobile, street theater style, like that of the Teatro Campesino who started by perfoming in the orchards on the beds of pickups, often using the workers themselves as actors, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, who I had seen perform at our college. In order, were basic and simple props, homemade costumes, with quick scene changes with meager sets. For theme and subject matter I chose family, culture, the Barrio, the farm worker, education.

Much of my spiel to the student-actors, (the majority had never been on stage before) had to do with the "audience" and how it was our job to entertain them, to make them laugh, to make them cry and that if we if we failed, the fault was ours.

There were good and bad audiences as we took theater to their turf: Jails, prisons, schools, churches. We had to work extra hard to demand attention from a cafeteria full of 7th or 8th graders! Try it sometime. "Now, students. Students! Students!! Students!!! STUDENTS!!!! If you don't quiet down we are all going back to the classroom!" The principals would cry. "I have never seen our students pay attention to any program like they did today", was the ultimate compliment.

The students hated rehearsals where I drilled them on their lines, movement, facial expression, diction, enunciation, delivery and concentration. But their biggest obstacle was being on time. "I can't do it Mr. Rios. I just can't do it!" They whimpered and complained after being told over and over: "One more time, but this time I want you to mean what you say."

Perhaps the most disheartening and scary of all was to play for half empty houses, whether for a roomful of 50 or 100. Empty chairs hurt. I counted each one. On the other hand, a full-house, noisy and anxious just before the opening lines, primed us. Backstage, I divided my attention between casting a critical eye on my actors and watching the faces of our audience. Did they cry, laugh when they were supposed to? Did they laugh in the middle of a serious moment?

I heard that audiences of Greek Tragedies in ancient Greece were not adverse to watching the same plays over and over. Thus, they knew the story, the plot, the climax and in the middle of some especially dramatic scene with the villain sneaking up behind the hero with a dagger, might shout out to the protagonist onstage "Look out! He is standing right behind you!!" My mother, watching her soap operas on TV, would become so engaged in the story that she constantly booed the villains and cheered on the heroes.

"Andale, malidito!, Aprovechado! Te lo merecias!!" She might cry out to a villian getting his just dues. "Pobrecita", she would woo to the poor undeserving heroine whose life was being torn apart by opportunistic men. This is what audience is about! Gut laughter. Tears. Anger. Sympathy. Empathy. Catharsis.

Suspension of Disbelief, it is called. When the audience allows itself to be transported by the story to a place far removed from reality, their own daily stuggles and problems and become engaged in the imaginary world of Literature. It was beautiful to see, especially in a non-traditional audience of people who never went to plays, who had never seen live actors on a stage, especially children.

The clapping and whistling at the end of a show, even during the show (sometimes), a standing ovation even from half the audience, these two minutes of appreciation made the hours, days and months of preparation worth it. What a joy it was to see the look of satisfaction, pride, self-worth on the student-actors' faces, as they bathed in the glory of this fleeting moment in time.

But no matter how good we were on stage, a bad audience was a nightmare. People bored. Talking. Jeering. Not laughing. Not reacting. A 15 minute skit turned into a tedious and seemingly endless chore and all you prayed for was for it to end so that you could get off that stage! We never got tomatoes thrown at us but an unappreciative audiences were just as bad.

The is no art without an audience who knows how to appreciate it. The artist who says "I just create my work for myself", is lying. If all I do in create art for myself, what point is there in creating it? I don't know about you but I never turn down a compliment, especially when it is genuine.

A woman once told me after I read one of my poems, "Oh, Mr. Rios I loved your poem so much, it almost made me cry!" "Almost? I guess I must have failed then, because I cried when I read it." I told her.


V said...

I've always wanted to do theater! But I am painfully shy. I took a stab at it in high school when I tried out for "Grease." It didn't go so well. Anyway, I think theater is so amazing in the fact that it does have the ability to take the audience along with them. I've seen a few productions at Teatro Campesino and am always blown away, even more so than when I've seen Broadway productions simply because they have more heart.

And I agree, art is most definitely not created for oneself. The beauty and joy come from sharing it and finding love radiating back at your from your readers/audience/patrons.

Rick Rivers said...

Live theater is awesome. I directed a short skit last year with a couple of college students and we performed it at a local event aimed at educating farm workers about their rights. It had to be written in and performed in Spanish so I wrote it in English and had it translated and the two actors did a dynamite job on it! I loved directing them and they wanted so badly to do a good job.