The Oldest, Cheapest, and Most Effective Audience Engagement Tool

July 27, 2014 / by Lavina Jadhwani, Classical Directing Fellow


I saw two very different and very successful outdoor productions this week -- Shakespeare & Company's Romeo and Juliet at the Mount on Thursday and Pittsfield Shakespeare in the Park's inaugural production of A Midsummer Night's Dream last night. R&J is a fleet (and surprisingly funny -- at the outset, at least) six person adaptation that previously toured to schools in the northeast; relying primarily on delicious sword fights and wickedly fast costume changes, the play spun from saucy swaggering to out-of-control youth violence in a heartbeat. Midsummer was packed with physical comedy and pop culture references (Peter Quince asked Siri for a weather forecast; the mechanicals broke in to an a cappella version of Outkast's "Hey Ya!" during their curtain call). The actors in both productions immediately invited me to enter into a dialogue with them via an extremely simple audience engagement tool: direct address.


As a frequent patron of The Back Room Shakespeare Project, I'm no stranger to the powers of direct address. My favorite productions of verse plays have been low in tech but high in honesty -- their priority was putting the language in the audience's lap. It follows that nontraditional venues such as parks and bars lend naturally themselves to creating a dialogue with audiences -- it's easier to break the fourth wall when there are fewer walls to begin with. (Great article about this, Poking the Fourth Wallin The New York Times this week.) As I'll be working in more traditional theatre spaces over the next year, I've been noodling on how I can steal pages from nontraditional playbooks: how to create intimacy in larger venues, how to deepen the actor-audience relationship, how to invite the audience to lean forward and engage. This week I realized that direct address is, in fact, the oldest play in that book. 


This got me thinking about the role of direct address in classical prose plays -- I associate it primarily with Shakespeare and Moliere, but surely it must've been of interest to other writers! I then came across an interview with Curt Columbus where he asserts that the only way to do Chekhov is to incorporate direct address. I'd never thought of those plays in that way, but he maintains that Chekhov wasn't writing fourth wall plays -- we just generally think of them in that way because that was Stanislavsky's aesthetic, and so that's how they were originally performed. According to Curt, "If you read his plays, there are obvious turnouts to the audience, it's written in there." I've barely dipped my toes in the Chekhovian waters, but now I'm dying to work on one of his plays! 


Curt's adaptation of Three Sisters recently played at the Arden in Philadelphia; it was directed by Terrence J. Nolan, who relied heavily on direct address and a "rehearsal room" frame that incorporated the reading of stage directions and scene descriptions. I wasn't able to see it, but I just read a great article about a performance where a fire alarm unexpectedly interrupted their show. "We’re so used to immersive theater experiences that when the fire on stage sets off a real fire alarm, we think it’s just part of the performance. The audience for Three Sisters at the Arden Theatre had a hard time detaching themselves from the show, accepting that they had been driven out into a cold Russian night," wrote Naomi Orwin. 


Curt also spoke about Trinity Rep's recent production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a play that is currently in rehearsal at Shakespeare & Company. The monologue I wrote about last week -- Vanya's epic multi-tasking rant -- was delivered directly to the audience in his production. It's not a surprising choice, given that direct address plays a key role in Trinity Rep's aesthetic, but hearing about Curt's production made me realize that I can be overly cautious about breaking the fourth wall. For me, when that convention is inconsistent, it starts to feel like forced audience participation. I am admittedly part of that headphone-wearing, Netflix-watching generation that is famous for rocking out silently and alone. But last night, sitting next to a nine-year-old girl who eagerly thrust her hands in to Puck's at the end of that famous epilogue, I realized that she was far more hip than I. Her old school impulse to sit in front of a storyteller and listen to him speak the truth made her the best audience member in that park. 


Pictured above: A Midsummer Night's Dream at Pittsfield Shakespeare in the Park. Photo by Enrico Spada.