The Theatre-Going Experience

In my previous blog post I wrote about making connections across the different classes I am taking. I had another one of those lightbulb moments as we were talking about the theatre and audience’s expectations. I’m currently taking Professor Blood’s Western Drama class in which we read and analyze plays and critical pieces on the theatre. In that class we are just wrapping up a unit on the avant-garde. In Elements of Style Suzan-Lori Parks describes artists of this time by saying, “most playwrights who consider themselves avant-garde spend a lot of time badmouthing the more traditional forms” (8). I find this statement to be accurate after having read Antonin Artaud’s manifesto, ”Theatre of Cruelty: First Manifesto”, specifically in regard to his thoughts on how an audience should consume a performance.

As it was discussed in class when one goes to see a theatrical performance they typically expect to be the observer and it is often considered a passive experience. Artaud however did not think theatre should be this passive experience and instead had ideas of pushing the audience’s boundaries and make them become actively involved. Something he focused on was having the performers perform around the audience as oppose to in front of them. He wanted to eliminate the stage (where the performers would be) and auditorium (where the audience would be), and instead replace it with “a kind of single, undivided locale without any partitions of any kind”. He thought that this would establish direct contact between the audience and the performance/performers.He also wanted galleries and runways overhead so that the performers could look down onto the audience as though they were trapping them. Artaud also advocated for strong usage of lighting and sound to actively engage the audience. This is where the name ‘theatre of cruelty’ derives from. He wanted to push the audience’s limits through the different gestures, lighting and sounds to make them active participants and get to thinking about what they are seeing, hearing and feeling ultimately exposing the audience to their worst fears.

During Monday’s class (April 15th), Dr. McCoy had exemplified Artaud’s vision perfectly when she had starred at Melisha and I. I didn’t expect to be brought into the conversation in this way which brought me to think about what I was experiencing and how it made me feel. It made me uncomfortable and forced me to confront the idea that I don’t like eye contact.

So is theatre always a passive experience? No and it shouldn’t be. Audience members should be actively involved in what they are seeing. Parks echos this in Elements of Style by saying, “A playwright should pack all five, all six- all 7 senses” (15). Attending a theatrical performance shouldn’t be an instance in which one solely observes, but rather experiences what is before them.

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