Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The ‘I’ Of The Beholder

In one respect, there could be considered to be no such thing as an ‘audience’. To refer, in the context of theatre, to an ‘audience’ indicates a temporary community comprised of many individuals. Rayner writes that the problem with the term is that ‘it signifies a collective version of a single consciousness rather than just the desire for such unity.’[1] When a critic writes than “the audience loved the show” they are assigning a single subjectivity to a multiplicity. To refer to an ‘audience’ is to desire the transition from a singular ‘I’ to a collective ‘We’ or ‘They’.

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To talk about spectatorship is to mean ‘the gaze’. In theatre there is ‘an ideal spectator carved in the likeness of the dominant culture’,[2] i.e. heterosexual white males. However the majority of theatre-goers and ticket-buyers are female.[3] How does this inform or affect the viewing experience of the majority, when the productions are speaking to a male audience comprised of female spectators?

To further complicate this, what lens do we perceive work through? What subject position, or multiple positions, inform our gaze? When we interpret a performance or work of art, do we do so from our position as a man, a father, a son, a doctor, a jazz-lover, a gamer… A range of positions guarantees a range of interpretations. The simultaneity of interpretation also extends to the act of spectatorship itself: we watch the performance, we follow the story, we may impose our own story into this, we respond to the work, and we respond to our response.

Therefore, who has the control in this action of spectatorship?  Is it the performer who commands the gaze of the audience, or is it the audience themselves, who have the power to turn away and deny the acknowledgement required to make a performance ‘work’? If performance takes place in the space between the Self and the Other, then the space must be filled by the Gaze, otherwise the act cannot take place.

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What responsibility does the performer have to the spectator? One interpretation could be that the performer has no responsibility to an audience: they have the right and the ability to ‘not perform’. However, in a consumerist society with the monetisation of theatre the performer is a commodity rather than an individual and therefore has the responsibility to fulfil a commercial contract by performing rather than exercising their individuality. Thus the spectator becomes, in turn, a consumer.

An audience is essential for performance to exist. Rayner writes that ‘In semiotic terms, the audience is a sign for purpose […] both performer and audience are partners in dialogue.’[4]. If an audience is a collective of individuals, then individually we collectively create and assign an individual interpretation to a performance, which assigns a collective meaning to the event. The power of spectatorship relies on the temporary suspension of the chasm between ‘I’ and ‘You’ to become a temporary ‘We’.

[1] Alice Rayner, ‘The Audience: Subjectivity, Community and the Ethics of Listening’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 7.2 (Spring 1993), p.3.
[2] Jill Dolan, ‘The Discourse of Feminisms: The Spectator and Representation’, in The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1991), p.1.
[3] Lyn Gardner, ‘Theatre’s gender inequality is shocking – but change is in the air’, The Guardian (22 September 2014) <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2014/sep/22/theatre-gender-inequality-tonic-advance> [accessed 14 November 2017]
[4] Alice Rayner, ‘The Audience: Subjectivity, Community and the Ethics of Listening’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 7.2 (Spring 1993), pp.3-13.

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