The Unspoken Contract
When I take my wife out to eat at a restaurant, I expect certain things to be done. I expect the table we're seated at to be clean. I expect the food to be served hot, fully cooked, and in a reasonable amount of time. I expect the waiter to check back periodically to see if we need drink refills. I don't have to ask the hostess about these things in advance or when placing a reservation – they're simply part of the experience of dining out, and almost anyone who visits a restaurant expects the same.
What we don't often realize, though, is that these kinds of unspoken expectations exist for our "customers" in the dramatic arts, too. Whether our audience members are paying ten dollars for tickets or just giving ten minutes of their hard-earned time on a Sunday morning, they expect certain things to be true when watching a performance. Paying attention to these silent demands can make a huge difference in the success of your production. Following are a few of the top items in the "unspoken contract":
• Keep them comfortable. We've all been to movies and concerts that were absolutely miserable, not because of the show itself, but because the temperature in the theatre was about twelve degrees below zero. As much as possible, keep the climate at a hospitable temperature, and make sure the seats are clean and comfy.
• Be loud and clear. The performance should be clearly seen and heard from any seat in the house. This is especially tricky in certain locations. Some auditoriums and sanctuaries were simply not built with drama in mind, and volume is highly subjective (what's perfect for an average person may be too loud or too quiet for others). Be mindful of the "visibility and audibility" issue as a director. Make sure your actors are projecting, and block with the entire audience in mind, not just the front row.
• Keep the drama on stage. They came to see a show, not participate in one. Directing dialogue to specific people in the audience and dragging unsuspecting audience members into the act are just a couple of examples of "audience involvement" that should be avoided. Most people have some degree of anxiety about public speaking and can very quickly become uncomfortable if there's a chance they may be "targeted."
• Keep it running smoothly. From the opening lights to the closing curtain, an audience should feel they're in good hands. Make sure your production is well rehearsed, and all technical problems are worked out well in advance. Your viewers take a lot of their "cues" from the vibe on stage, and it's hard to enjoy a show when the actors seem nervous!
• Play it safe. Any kind of stage violence should always be handled with extreme care, and not just for the sake of the actors –there are many tragic examples of audience members being injured by a prop or weapon that got out of control during a performance. In addition to the physical concerns, there's also a psychological one. Our viewers are expected to "suspend disbelief'' and hopefully get lost in the fictional world of the drama. But if stage combat seems careless or out of control, the audience can ironically stop being concerned for the safety of the character and start being concerned for the safety of the actor, which of course removes them from the story. A stage gun should never be pointed in the direction of the audience (even if it's only a harmless prop) for the same reason – it either makes the viewers feel at risk or forces them to take a moment and remind themselves it's only a prop – either way, you've lost the moment.
The above list isn't an exhaustive one, but it essentially boils down to the same thing: be attentive to your audience. Whether you have lifechanging lesson to pass on or just want to make your viewers laugh, you want to be sure your audience members are in a position to best receive it. Following the above guidelines can help ensure the message gets through, while still keeping a house full of "satisfied customers."