Not long after I started writing my first play, I called a local playwright and asked if I buy him lunch and pick his brain. (Food is always a good way to reach theatre people.) It was very productive lunch – my hand had barely stopped moving, I was trying to take notes so quickly. He flooded me with some much terrific advice. He told me about correct formatting, gave me a list of books and plays to read, and suggested I use non-actors for table readings. (Great actors can cover the holes the size of Mack Trucks without even realizing it – non-actors will fall into a puddle.)
At last, table cleared, bill paid, I was stuffing my notepad into my bag when my friend said, “Oh, and when you go to performances of your work, don’t watch the play.”
“Huh? Don’t watch the play??? What do I watch?”
“Watch the audience.”
This was the craziest thing I ever heard. Even crazier than his suggestion of getting my Mom’s bridge club to read my plays.
Then I went to Opening Night of my first play. And you know what? I realized he was right. I know the play. I know what’s going to happen. I can recite the lines along with the actors. But I have no idea how the audience is going to react.
Are they smiling? Maybe I can make that section work a little harder to get a laugh next time. Are they bored? Are they crying? Or whispering to each other. Or – these days – playing with their cell phone. Their responses tell me what parts are dragging, what jokes need to be set up better, what is working really, really well.
When I have the luxury of being able to attend rehearsals, it’s easy for me to watch the audience from the dress rehearsal through the run. When the show is out of town, it’s harder. I DO want to watch the play because every production is different. And sometimes I have to close my eyes and wince a little. But I do try to sneak some peeks. And I always manage to go to at least 2 or 3 performances so I can watch the audience.
My favorite place to sit is in the middle to back of the theatre. Always on the aisle – in case I need a quick get away! (I almost always panic that the play will completely suck – even after a dozen great productions.) The place I dislike most is in the center three rows back – which is the exact seat most theatres reserve for me.
Frequently an audience member catches my eye, and I watch that specific person. Sometimes I search for the person who was dragged there by a spouse or some friends. The greatest feeling is when I can make that person laugh.
So, yes, all my actor friends out there – I love watching you inhabit my characters. But don’t be disappointed if I look distracted. Sometimes the audience is more interesting than you.