- From Guest to Witness: Teaching Audience Studies in Postsecondary Theatre Education
I begin with an anecdote. Recently, at a large professional regional Canadian theatre in a major city, we in the audience were greeted with the ubiquitous pre-show chat (always, for me, a painful process that takes me out of, rather than into, the world of the play I am preparing to see). The house manager in this instance introduced himself as the “guest services manager” of the theatre, as he admonished us to turn off our cell phones and unwrap our candies. And everything in me wanted to rise up from my seat in the balcony to scream, inspired by Neil Blackadder’s historical study of spectatorial acts of counter-performance, “I AM NOT YOUR F*&#@%G GUEST!” Of course, I kept my scream repressed and went on to enjoy the production, but I have remembered this strong response to being labeled a guest in the role of spectator that has led to the title of this present article.
For me, the use of the term “guest” when referring to “audience” is symptomatic of the deep abyss dividing artists and audiences in contemporary mainstream theatre practices, and is a complex problem that was the source of my graduate research investigations (see Prendergast in “Works Cited”). A guest is someone to be treated with reverence and care, as this person is essentially a stranger in your home; a guest is a visitor only, not one who belongs or resides in the place they are visiting. Hosts may welcome them in, make them comfortable and happy, and then wait to send them on their way. And I cannot help but wonder if this was how the audiences of ancient Greece, or of Commedia dell’arte, or of Elizabethan or Restoration England felt about themselves, or how the actors performing in these theatres felt about their audiences. On the contrary, these early theatre audiences (and many more) were inscribed as witnesses to theatre rituals and storytelling that everyone understood to be a part of sociocultural (even political and/or religious) practice, not simply an evening’s diverting entertainment to be consumed then soon forgotten. Witnesses play very different roles in our culture from those of guests. Witnessing is an act of presence and testimony, of authentication and memory-making, of evidence and seeing. Witnesses are necessary, not extraneous, to the processes in which they are implicated; a witness in a theatre context is integral, not accidental.
This important differentiation is derived from Richard Schechner’s performance theories of spectatorship. In his chapter “Selective Inattention” (218–22) in Performance Theory, he discusses the differences between an accidental and an integral audience in both rituals (consisting of a broad range of local and global cultural practices) and aesthetic theatre. The comparison between the two types of audiences is clearly defined by Schechner:
An accidental audience is a group of people who, individually or in small clusters, go to the theater—the performances are publicly advertised and open to all. On opening nights of commercial shows the attendance of the critics and friends constitutes an integral rather than an accidental audience. An integral audience is one where people come because they have to or because the event is of special significance to them. Integral audiences include the relatives of the bride and groom at a wedding, the tribe assembled for initiation rites, dignitaries on the podium for an inauguration.(220) [End Page 95]
He goes on to provide examples of integral audiences in avant-garde theatre (“a supportive audience” ), Kabuki, coronations, funerals, and television studio audiences. He sums up that “an accidental audience comes ‘to see the show’ while the integral audience is ‘necessary to accomplish the work of the show,’” and he also comments that “the presence of an integral audience is the surest evidence that the performance is a ritual” (220).
While this might easily lead one to conclude that the model of an integral theatre audience is ideal, Schechner surprisingly suggests otherwise:
Interestingly, the behavior of people as spectators differs greatly depending on whether these individuals comprise an integral or accidental audience—and this difference is not...