Audience Participation

One of the major design elements for our production of The Laramie Project was stadium seating, the audience sat on two sides of the playing space and, never fully in darkness, watched each other as they watched the show.  I believe the concept came from an AIDS play that Jeff saw in the 1980’s in New York City in which watching the audience members care for their loved ones was as much a part of the action as the actors were.

The design sounded amazing when presented and explained at our first class.  But as I left the rehearsal room and attempted to describe the setup and purpose to my friends I began to develop skepticism with the design.  Playing in the round is an incredibly difficult staging (and acting) challenge and I didn’t fully believe that it would be worth it just so that the audience could watch each other as they watched the show.  From the beginning it was important to Jeff and Torry that the audience be included in the witnessing of the story, assigning them the role of active listeners and not merely letting them hide behind the comfort of a fourth wall.  While I wanted to believe that the audience would accept this active and visible role, I wasn’t confident that that would be the case.  I was worried that the vulnerability inherent in feeling light on your face in a theater would distract the audience rather than drawing them in and that seeing others across the way would only make them further self conscious.

It is with great joy that I can now say that I was wrong for doubting the ability and willingness of our audiences to step up to the task our design team laid out for them.  While hesitant at first, cautiously tip-toeing over Torry’s masterpiece of a canvas to get to their seats, the audience members were quickly drawn into the story we were telling, putting their personal (and Duke) insecurities aside for the two hours and forty minutes (our code for “three hours but it’s worth it, we hope”) that they spent with us.  People came alone and in large groups, with their partner (one of my new favorite words to use to describe those in all types of relationships, thanks to Summer) or their best friend.  Audience members laughed and cried, held hands and put their arms around each other.  They shook their heads at Eileen Engen and Sherry Johnson, nodded along with Doc O’Connor and Romaine Patterson, and cried with Rulon Stacey and Dennis Shepard.  The audience participated.

One specific performance had a particularly active and commendable audience.  The Saturday performance our second weekend of shows started a tad behind schedule as the house manager worked tirelessly, filling each of the remaining seats with people eager to get off the waitlist.  With each and every seat filled in our quaint little theater, the door closed and we began.

And then something truly beautiful happened in Sheafer Theater.  Community happened.  A couple held hands in the front row and a group of friends supported each other in the second, their energy fueling the various lines I delivered from the “X2” spot, halfway up the downstage center aisle. I heard the groans and sighs as Afftene delivered her Baptist Minister lines and allowed those reactions to sink in, adding true pain to my line “Thank you reverend, for speaking with me,” that in rehearsal I had delivered nonchalantly as a polite close to the conversation.

As I sat back in my chair on the periphery, finished with my parts for Act 2, I saw one of the most beautiful exhibits of friendship I have seen in my life.  Two friends held each other, breathing in sync, completely in tune with each other’s emotions, experiencing the show both individually and as an incredible unit.  Watching them, I started to cry, overwhelmed by the effortless support they provided each other.

This play, this experience brought out the best in Duke.  It made me believe in the concept of a “Duke community.”  The cast – crew and student – staff dynamics taught me the beauty of the collaborative process.  But it was the audience participation on that very special night that changed Duke for me, that made the Duke community something I am proud to be a part of.

Gratefully yours,
Naomi Riemer

2 thoughts on “Audience Participation

  1. Naomi–

    The more I hear about that Saturday performance, the more I ache at having missed it; however, I agree with Jeff that perhaps it was the kind of performance you all were bound to have during the run and *without* us in the house. I’m so glad that to a person, you all seem to have really felt (viscerally) the energy the audience was giving you. I believe that part of their ability to put that kind of focus on the performance was the example that you all set with your “active witnessing” all around the stage. At no time did any one of you sit back and passively let the play happen in and around you. Even those ever long moments in pre-show (exacerbated as we had long wait lists–a *good* problem to have!–and our front-of-house staff worked to squeeze everyone they could into a seat) you all were centered, present, still but obviously actively preparing for what was about to begin.

    I was amazed at the amount of emotion people felt free to express, particularly grief. For me, the Thursday of week 2 seemed a particularly raw (as in emotion) night. I watched one young man sob during Cameron/Rulon’s medical updates. He was trying to hold himself in a kind of half-hug and keep his head down, but the heave of his shoulders and contorted face said it all. What was a bit disconcerting in that moment was that I *couldn’t* touch him. In a proscenium set-up, I’d never see him and perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered to me so much, but watching him across the space I found myself wanting to get to him, just to put another arm around his shoulder. It was so hard to see him have such a reaction and be across the stage space from him. Certainly, this is a secondary experience of the stadium seating that Torry created — witnessing the pain of someone else’s suffering and wanting more than anything to ease that pain. Of course it comes with the further realization of the gaps/chasms that can keep us apart on a daily basis and, perhaps, the ultimate decision to do whatever we can to bridge those distances, to support each other not just in moments of crisis but throughout our lives. Lofty goals for theater, but ones that experiences like this one with folks like you make me believe are possible.

    –Jules

    PS I think the play Jeff mentioned was Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Detail of possible interest, that play just went into previews April 19 for a B’way revival (directed by Joel Grey) at John Golden Theater and opens for its (initial) 6-week run this Wednesday. http://broadwayworld.com/article/Photo-Flash-THE-NORMAL-HEART-Production-Shots-20110425 If you’re gonna be near the city before all your summer adventures you might check it out. I don’t think they’re using stadium seating this time, but it will be very interesting to see the reception/response to a piece, forged in the early fire of the AIDS epidemic, in this moment in time.

  2. Naomi,

    What a beautiful entry. I also hate having missed Saturday Night. But there is something to be said for your ownership as a company without “mom and dad” being around.

    The audience is always the variable. The last thing to add. The great Tyrone Gutherie (Founder of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis) called the director (and in this case the dramturg) “an audience of one (two).”

    Every time Jules and I tried to forget we knew you and watch it for the first time. The real audience far exceeded my expectations as they played their role and witnessed.
    It took me back to that spring of 1987 when Ed and I held each other in The Public Theater and witnessed the theatrical telling of the start of the Aids epidemic in The Normal Heart. We held each other and publicly mourned the death of my brother and too many of our friends from the dreaded plague. There was no public policy to stop the death of our friends and family and as it goes in Angels, Ronald Regan dared not even say the word while so many died.

    The power of theater. What will be your generations story that will need courage to tell?

    You have been a vital source of truth and power since you first auditioned. Thank you for your courage.

    Xo, Jeffrey

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