A Valentine for the Audience

Since it’s the day to celebrate all things about love, I want to send a Valentine to our audiences. QUARTET’s have been notable for the warm response from every single house. Over the years, I’ve marvelled at how different each audience is. The latest are no exception.

I listen to the first scene before my entrance over the dressing-room speaker, and watch the action on the monitor. This is when you get a sense of the ‘new player’ in the room. It’s so comforting to hear audience responses come from the get-go, especially before a first entrance.

Arthur Miller the great American 20th century playwright called theatre, ‘a civilising act,’ one as important to our culture as road and bridge-building. His point about its being an ‘act’ rather than a place is spot on. Sitting in a big dark room full of strangers (as Groucho Marx called being at the theatre) is very much a part of that civilising influence; we come together – play, players, and audience – and share our humanity, our being alive in that one place at that moment. We take the experience away with us, for the influence of the ‘act’ of theatre goes on way past the curtain of a particular production.

For an actor, there are points in the action of any play where an audience reaction is expected, and the intensity of that reaction almost always sets the tone for the rest of the night. QUARTET is a comedy, it’s gentle, often farcical, but a delicate piece to work. Each scene has a different ‘feel’ and tempo-rhythm, and the audience will respond (sometimes unexpectedly) with a range of reactions.

In the more thoughtful or dramatic scenes there is that palpable and very powerful silence I’ve spoken about elsewhere. A moment later it’s groans of recognition, hysterical laughter or rolling chuckles. I’m happy to say my character comes in for gasps of outrage or tuts of admonishment; she’s a bit of a handful is our Jean. But it’s always a joy to play with the audience in this way. We are constantly anticipating, listening, adjusting, often heightening stage action or adjusting timing and even wrong-footing them for a line’s payoff – a bit like playing a great game of tennis.

And then there are the individuals within the whole ‘beast’ which is an audience. These are the hooters, the snorters, the guffaw-ers, the shriekers; the ones whose audible responses linger in the air and affect others – and us on stage. They can raise the temperature in the room. I love them; I love the live-ness of our game.

Then at curtain call, you really can feel the collective in-breath as the black-out begins just before the applause, and the magical sound of all those hands, the ‘bravos’ (love these, of course) which bring us all together to acknowledge the power and the joy of live theatre. It’s a great game all right; much better than tennis.

Happy Valentine’s Day.