Learning from the Audience
Two weeks ago was the opening of A Christmas Story, the final show on Rosebud Theatre’s Opera House stage for the 2019 season. It always seems a bit early to start thinking of Christmas on November 1st, no matter how many times I’ve done it, but that doesn’t stop audiences from heading our way, using their visit as a traditional kickstart to their holiday mindset. A Christmas Story marks my eighth Christmas show with Rosebud Theatre, but my last time was in 2012, and it’s been long enough that I wasn’t quite ready for the familiarity that washed over me as our first three audiences joined us this last Friday and Saturday.
This fall, I started with great excitement as a new faculty member with RSA. With all the business of teaching around rehearsals and the show, and with 2 daughters under 3 living in a house in mid-renovation, I was hoping to get through rehearsal and opening somewhat intact. I wasn’t anticipating the amount of memorizing this play required of me, but I didn’t realize until week two of four that I was in for it, and I put in some long days with the script. Fast forward to opening week; the lines were mostly sticking (although there still seems to be one or two that mutate suddenly each performance—I don’t know where the next leak in the dam will appear), and we were needing—needing an audience. And they showed up!
Play after play, I’ve learned so much about the story I’ve been trying to tell from the audience. The director tries to help the actor with objectivity, the playwright tries to set up the actor with words and intention, the designers try to give context for the actor and their action, but the audience is the most important part. The most obvious thing that happens is laughter, but it’s so much more than just laughter, it’s attention. Young and old, tired and wired, anxious and relaxed, from so many different contexts and backgrounds, the members of the audience all pay attention in their own way. There is a palpable sense of what it is that they experience as they watch us on stage, and this is so helpful, I daresay one of the biggest contributing factors in my ongoing education as an actor.
I had no idea what acting was when I started as a student, but I was allowed to spend time alongside others actors who were more experienced in the shared life between audiences and storytellers. I have found audiences to be generous educators, and they continue to be. As we perform A Christmas Story, I often watch from the wings as student actors try things on stage and discover show by show what works through the feedback audiences give to them, and it is clear that the audience desires their success. The students take these affirmations as nudges in the direction of bold, clear, direct and generous storytelling. I believe the Rosebud Theatre audience is unique because they are somehow in on the training we offer here.
After opening A Christmas Story this November, I was overwhelmed with gratitude to our audience with a new clarity for the education they offer me and all those who’ve studied and worked at Rosebud Theatre. It is truly a collaboration: when people come to see theatre here, it’s for much more than a show to watch or a bit of entertainment to consume; whether they know it or not, they participate powerfully in the work of training young storytellers. I’ve found nothing like it.