Some time ago I came to the conclusion that theater consists of a dialog between the show on the stage and the audience in the seats. Most actors understand this, though most audience members never realize how important their role is in the experience. However, there is a point in every show when the director must send that "child" that has been nurtured for weeks alone onto the stage, and must sit among a group of strangers hoping their reactions are when and where intended.
Of course all audiences are unique, but one night at the New Repertory Theatre I noticed that Director and Artistic Director Rick Lombardo, after giving the obligatory introductory speech, had discretely taken a seat in the house as the lights dimmed. I wondered what went through his mind as he watched both sides of that theatrical dialog.
My curiosity was even more acute because of something Rick had said to me when I had first interviewed him --- that he gave up a job at a thriving, healthy company in the mid-west "to test himself in front of an audience in the north-east once more."
I knew that the first season had to be announced in only a week or two, but for his second season Rick had had the chance to watch that "Big Black Giant" in dialog with his work. Now, I wondered, what had he learned about his audience? Had they surprised him in any way? And so I asked him to talk about his continuing dialog, and what he now knew about his north-eastern audience.
And I also wondered --- vain of me though it is --- what the responses of critics might have done to the audience's responses. Not whether the director had any assessments of the critics, but whether critical notices had in any way shaped or changed audience response?
This is his reply:
I'm sorry I've taken so long to respond to your questions. This is the last really busy part of the season here at New Rep. I'm about to go into rehearsal with our last show, we're in the middle of our subscription campaign and two Fund drives, and since I'm wearing two hats these days (after being "promoted" to Producing Artistic Director last summer), I'm finding less and less time for the "fun" stuff.
But here goes:
I agree with you that theatre is a dialogue between artist and audience, and that for a resident theatre company an entire season forms a dialogue. This is, of course, compounded over years of producing for a particular audience, because the artists and the audience start to have common experience to fall back on. "I remember when you did that other Fugard play" was heard quite a lot at New Rep in January during Valley Song, and that past experience with both the playwright, and the New Rep's work with that writer, I think enriched the experience for the audience for this play.
My own personal dialogue with the New Rep audience began a little over a year and a half ago, when I sat in that darkened room and watched and listened to them watch and listen to my work for the first time with The Scarlet Letter. I think after a play opens I almost always watch the audience more than the performance. I've lived and breathed the play for the last month before the opening - it's mysteries and magic have already exhaustively worked their charms on me before the audience encounters it. The arrival of the audience is the moment where I test whether my assumptions about the content, beauty, style, structure of a work were right. I'm almost always surprised, because no two audiences, in fact no two audience members, are alike. However, I have recognised a few more predominant characteristics of the New Rep audience. They like content, and they like to be entertained. And these two characteristics are not mutually exclusive. They will appreciate, and flock to, such seemingly disparate works as Sylvia, A Moon for the Misbegotten and Valley Song. The one thing that seems to be constant about something becoming a "hit" at our theatre is that some aspect of either the writing or the acting must be extraordinary. I work very hard to try to give them "extraordinary" as often as I can.
About CRITICS, I frankly don't think they have much impact on a production at all. (Except in ticket sales) I suppose I can say that because New Rep has such a large subscription base for a small professional theatre, and that I know we will have an audience whether the press is great or not. I know in the case of our subscribers that a great many of them have a longstanding loyalty and relationship with our company, and have learned over the years to wait until they see a play to make a judgement about it. And our audience is not shy about telling others to come and see something if they enjoyed it, whatever the reviews may have been like. As for the actors, my experience is that most of them don't like to know about reviews until after the run is finished, anyway. (Although whether they are secretly reading them and then saying they haven't I don't know.) As for myself, I read reviews because I know that what is written will have an impact on single ticket sales, but I try not to allow individual responses (good or bad) cloud my own critical estimation of the work. I try to understand what is working (or not) about something I've directed, and reviews are an interesting way to compare that set of assumptions. I think I would take negative response to heart if a variety of critics all had strong, similar responses to a production that they felt was inadequate, but that doesn't happen very often in this town!
Thanks for the opportunity to let fly!