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  • Audience as Performer: The Changing Role of Theatre Audiences in the Twenty-First Century by Caroline Heim
  • Jessie Mills
Audience as Performer: The Changing Role of Theatre Audiences in the Twenty-First Century. By Caroline Heim. New York: Routledge, 2016; pp. 200.

In this important book Heim argues that audience performance is as critical and vital to the creation of the theatrical event as the onstage performance; further, “audience response is a performance in and of itself and that in the diegetic world of the theatrical experience the actors and the audience are performers in this world” (7). To capture the “ordinary” (and Western) audience voice, Heim narrows her research and analyses to “mainstream” theatres, which she admits some difficulty in categorizing. Even so, her compassionate, inquisitive, and critical examination of the extensive and essential performance of the audience in mainstream theatre will prove an invaluable text for classes and scholars in theatre history, criticism, and practice.

Heim’s impressively comprehensive text on audience stems from her multifaceted relationship with the auditorium. Heim spent much of her career learning about audience performance through her own work as a professional actor. She explains that “the focus of [her] entire career has been centered on theatre audiences: performing for audiences, watching audiences, directing audiences, listening to audiences and writing about audiences” (2). Throughout the text, Heim references personal interviews with audience members, ushers, and actors done in New York, Chicago, London, Sydney, and Toronto from 2013–14. In citing these interviews and other personal experiences, she appropriately places her observations in dialogue with essential theorists, such as Sartre, De Certeau, Grotowski, Brecht, and Goffman, from whom “repertoire of actions” serves as a primary critical framework.

Heim’s text is separated into two parts. Part 1 offers a general scope of audience members’ repertoire of actions, and extends those practices into a historical overview of audience presence and etiquette from the nineteenth century up to the present. She consciously locates her sphere of research in the nineteenth century as the “time when audiences last gave demonstrative performances” (12), the end of which she credits, among other things, to the implementation of electric lighting in auditoriums (and therefore the darkening of the audience). Part 2 examines four central roles that audiences play in twenty-first-century mainstream, Western theatres: audience as critic, community, consumer, and co-creator. She offers a case study for each category.

In chapter 1 Heim outlines the scope of audience members’ repertoire of actions, focusing on those that she deems most commonly performed by twenty-first-century mainstage audiences, as well as those that most affect the theatrical experience. This chapter offers unique insights into the “audience text,” or the “series of kinetic, paralingual and verbal contributions that make up the audience’s repertoire of action” (28). In later chapters Heim further parallels audiences’ role as performer by situating their behavior in an actor’s lexicon. Audience members, for instance, have characters (“the matinee girl,” “the groupie,” and so on), costumes, dialogue, and entrance and exit cues.

In chapters 2 and 3 Heim tracks the fascinating shift in audience performance from the early to late nineteenth century as a movement from explicitly demonstrative to restrained. This shift in performance aligns with a shift in power, where “the inversion of the audience [moved] from master to servant” (66). It is here that her analysis is especially potent, as she boldly positions the audience performance as a central and catalyzing element of theatre history and evolution. Theatre of the late nineteenth century is widely acknowledged as a movement toward psychological realism. Heim implies that such a movement was only possible with the response of the audience. She offers that, just as the early nineteenth-century audience emulated the highly demonstrative acting style and expression onstage, audiences similarly shifted to (and it can be implied, allowed) the subdued and naturalistic styles of psychological realism in the late nineteenth century.

Part 2 examines “what kind of performance the audience are invited to give or co-perform with the onstage actors” in contemporary mainstage theatres (87). Invited is the key, as Heim documents case studies of audience outreach endeavors by major theatre companies...


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pp. 176-177
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