Luke Brown is a Hamilton-based theatre creator. He is currently serving as Associate Director for Theatre Aquarius and is the founder of Flat Earth Global.
One Fringe, not so long ago, I sat in the darkness of a theatre, baffled by what I was witnessing. A convoluted plot, acting that wouldn’t have been out of place in a porno, and non-existent direction had all combined to form a megazord of awfulness. Looking around the smallish crowd of 10 or so, it was easy to tell that I wasn’t alone in this opinion; I witnessed one person fall asleep, another spend the majority of the show on their phone and one brave soul do what I so longed to do: walk out.
Despite my best efforts, the writer spotted me on my way out. I searched for something supportive to say, complementary but not too complimentary; vague, you know? Before I had the chance, they launched into a tirade about how the audience was stupid for not understanding the show. This asshole was blaming the audience. This bothered me. Deeply.
I’ll be honest, I’m as guilty of doing bad work as anyone else, and I’ll be guilty again in the future. We all make mistakes, that’s part of the process of being an artist, but the one mistake that is unforgivable is blaming our results on the audience. We do shows for an audience. All of the rehearsal in the world can't truly prepare us for what happens when an audience enters; they're unpredictable. Something you think is so clear will make them scratch their heads. Anyone who doesn’t take an audience’s reaction into consideration is showing a fundamental lack of respect and understanding of what the medium is.
All this made me stop and reflect on the way I work, specifically how I worked on a show called Séance, which I co-created with Nicholas Wallace. During Séance I realized that a script is to a show what Pinocchio is to a real boy; they both require something to become what they desire to be. With scripts, that something is an audience. A script without an audience remains just that, a script and not a show. It’s so easy to think we’ve been clear in our storytelling when in fact we haven’t been, and every performance of Séance showed us where we had gone wrong. Individuals may be useless but an audience, as a group, are always brilliant. If only we had more time to listen and then fix things. This listening to the audience made the show a grind: daily rewrites, not enough time to rehearse them but in the end, the show was better for it.
Inspired by my conversation with this disgruntled and dangerously untalented writer, and with Strange and Unusual, our next creation on our minds, Nick and I approached Colette Kendall at the Staircase about doing a weekly show. It would give us the opportunity to work in front of an audience and have time to properly rework material. We agreed we’d take a handful of illusions Nick was comfortable with and pair them with untested material. We’d have a week between each show to rework the material. Following each performance we sit down and have brutally honest conversations about what needs to happen to make next week’s show better. We then implement the changes. As material gets to a point where we feel confident about it we pull it out of the show and replace it with something else that we want to try. When we fail, which is often, we embrace it. Failure allows us to see where we’ve gone wrong; it helps us find a way to solve the problems so that the next audience will have a better experience. Each performance reflects what we learned from the previous one.
Don’t misconstrue this as me advocating for you to abandon your vision of a piece to placate an audience, but rather use it as a tool to gauge whether or not your vision is being communicated to the audience. We do the shows for them. If they’re bored or confused then it’s our fault, not the fault of the person who gave up their time, money and left their house to see our show. The audience is our partner, we need to trust them or we’ll never make that puppet into a real boy.
You can see Nick and Luke attempting to turn a puppet into a real boy Wednesdays at 8:00 PM until May 3rd. In May, Strange and Unusual will debut at Theatre Aquarius in the Studio Theatre. https://www.nickwallace.com/upcoming-shows