Listening to the audience by Sylvia Morris

Posted to General with 4 Comments on 24.08.12 by Sarah Ellis

The 2012 Olympic Games have been a fantastic success which it’s hoped will change the perception of sport in the UK and increase participation at all levels. But what will be the legacy of that part of the Cultural Olympiad, the World Shakespeare Festival? Will we see a change in the way Shakespeare is perceived, and might it lead to audiences feeling more involved?In 1592 Thomas Nashe visited the theatre to see the play we now call Henry VI Part 1. Instead of describing the play, he chose to record the emotional effect one scene had on the audience. He wrote that the onstage death of the great military hero Talbot provoked “the teares of ten thousand spectators…who…imagine they behold him fresh bleeding”.

Without audience members like Nashe we would know almost nothing about contemporary performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Thomas Platter, a visitor from Switzerland, described a production of Julius Caesar, Simon Forman wrote about several plays he saw, and Henry Peacham added a sketch of one of the scenes to a page of handwritten quotations from Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare’s ability to write scenes remembered by audiences ensured that his plays would carry on being performed as well as read.

In the twenty-first century, theatre audiences are still important. Actors often talk about how much audiences vary from performance to performance, and author Iain Mackintosh even suggests “the performer is rendered impotent unless he or she receives …a charge from the audience”.

So why do we so rarely hear from the audience? Helen Freshwater notes that academics “prefer discussing their own responses, or relaying the opinions of reviewers, [rather than] asking “ordinary” theatre-goers… what they make of a performance”, and it’s true that professional critics and academics are normally the only people whose opinions we read.

When Gordon Crosse published his notebooks covering fifty years of theatregoing, 1890-1940, a reviewer called them “a little landmark in the history of his subject”, but his lead has rarely been followed. Professionals are left to assume the role of audience spokesperson, yet we all know how much post-show disagreement there can be among any group of friends, families or colleagues.

Theatre, especially Shakespeare, is an expression of our collective identity, important enough for many libraries and archives to collect the remains of productions. For many years I cared for one of the most comprehensive, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Archives at the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive in Stratford-upon-Avon. I often met ordinary theatregoers who remembered productions they had seen years or even decades before. Something as simple as a cast-list or photograph could release a flood of memories, and it was clear that those performances had been special moments in that person’s life.

Performance is notoriously difficult to preserve. Researchers examine every remaining scrap of information: the prompt book, photographs, sound recording, video, programme, rehearsal notes, set and costume designs and score, but can’t capture how it actually felt to be there. Written descriptions can help. But for productions within living memory there is another way. We could record the voices of people talking about their memories, perhaps of specific moments, or maybe like Thomas Nashe, they might just remember how it made the audience weep. And let’s hear what audiences have made of movements like Director’s Shakespeare, Experimental Shakespeare and Original-Practices Shakespeare.

Memory is subjective and imprecise, but so is theatre. Oral History has become a legitimate tool for researching all kinds of subjects through the memories of individuals. I’m interested in finding ways of interviewing people about their memories of Shakespeare on stage in order to create an archive of recordings that can be made freely available. My particular interest is RSC productions, but potentially recordings could be made anywhere Shakespeare is performed or studied, and people could even record their memories remotely. Technology now allows us to share material on social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube, or to embed recordings in blogs, and I’m currently exploring some of these options.

If you’d like to find out more, or are interested in joining me in this project, please visit The Shakespeare blog, where I’ll be posting in the section Listening to the Audience. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • David Schajer

    Hi Sylvia,

    What a wonderful post, and your Listening to the Audience project is such an exciting idea!

    It is a shame that we don’t know more about the behavior of Shakespeare’s audiences, and I think your project is an excellent method to preserve our present behavior for future reference.

    Thank you!


    David Schajer

  • Richard Moore

    Iain Mackintosh’s quote is nonsense.

    • Richard Morris

      While I bow to your greater knowledge on this Richard, a professional actor would not be left impotent, but I also know from my own experience that an audience, or a crowd if you are a sportsman, can lift your performance considerably.

  • Hugh Richmond

    Dear Sylvia: Congratulations for your thoughtful proposal
    which I strongly support though I have to admit that at eighty I am not likely
    to be much practical help! As for Iain
    Mackintosh’s comment that without an audience the actor is impotent, it is presumably
    not valid for the many effective performances recorded in studios, but the
    comment is nevertheless more than “nonsense.” In the “Year of the King,” Antony
    Sher describes his difficulties in rehearsing for “Richard III,’ and ends by
    saying of the previews with full public audiences: “these working days during
    the previews are the most valuable in the whole rehearsal process. The audience
    teaching us what does and doesn’t work.” (p. 240) With best

    wishes for your project,
    Hugh Richmond

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