Thursday, 24 May 2007


When I watch my own shows, I like to sit at the back, behind the audience. I watch the show through the audience, their reactions become part of the spectacle. This is the only way of telling if a show is really working: if they're still, rapt, laughing in the right places, barely breathing in others, then I know I've done my job. If they're shuffling, coughing, catching laughs late or not at all, then I know it's not working. It's scarcely rocket science, but it's stunning how easy people find it to kid themselves. Or maybe they, like me, are simply consummate liars about any show that's still running, for the sake of the performers and the ticket sales.

There are a thousand reasons a show might not be working, some of them environmental and beyond your control, but the audience never lies. Boring the audience is the only crime and it's very easy to tell when you've done so. Of course, there are degrees of boredom: everything from gawping mental catatonia to momentary remembrance of the fact that your seat is uncomfortable. All of them are to be avoided. And the way boredom works is often counter-intuitive. I met a guy who worked on the most recent Harry Potter film, and he was telling me about editing the section with the dragon chase. For some reason it was a tad boring, and they couldn't for the life of them figure out why - surely this is thrilling stuff? Eventually, they cut a bit out of the sequence directly before the chase - hey presto!- the dragon chase was no longer boring. If you're interested, but not interested enough, you can save up your boredom, and as a result the good bits don't sustain themselves as well as they should. You have to earn your highs.

Peter Brook once said that boredom is the director's most powerful tool. Am I bored? If so, why? Answer that question, the theory goes, and you've fixed the show. But to simply avoid creating boredom is a rather meagre aim in art. There's an episode of the West Wing in which Toby chats to a poet with whom he's a little bit in love. She says that the aim of art is (and I misquote, but you get the drift) "to captivate us for as long as you ask for our attention. That's it." That's more like it.

So my show last night was a difficult one to judge. It simply hadn't occurred to me that by electing to play the guitar live on stage, alongside John on violin, I could watch the show, or the audience, but not both. And watching the audience would likely cause a very odd split of focus, as well as being rather off-putting for them. So I didn't hear any shuffling, and the only coughs came when one of the cast started coughing backstage (like yawning, coughing is contagious). And certainly the performance was a better rendition of the material than they've yet achieved in rehearsal. But I can't be sure it's working unless I see it through the audience.

As a director, that's how I glean my knowledge of a job well done, where I get my ultimate job satisfaction. I'm not going to get that on this show, however much of a blast the show has been.

It's noteworthy that on Can of Worms this process works slightly differently. Because I'm in that, however fleetingly, I again can't see how well it's working. But because the provocation of laughter is so significant a barometer of the piece, it's possible to gauge its success purely from the volume of that laughter. In a show so dominantly comedic, it's not necessary to see if the audience are sitting still; their reaction is audible. We did a scratch performance last week in which I didn't have to be staring at the backs of heads to recognise that it wasn't working: the audience weren't laughing very much. It's as simple as that. At BAC on two nights out of three it clearly worked very well, on the other night fairly well, and in Bradford the first piece, 473, worked well and the rest not so well. How do I know? Because the whole audience laughed when we wanted them to, or because they didn't.

The real trick, having figured out that it's not working, is to figure out why. That's the hard part.


Karen said...

I've read this Blog entry, purely because you said no one would. Very Interesting, especially the stuff about boredom. I hate being bored. Especially I hate to pay money for the painful experience of Boredom. It's almost as bad as paying a dentist to take your teeth out. (Your show wasn't boring in the slightest by the way and I look forward to seeing it again tonight!)

Anonymous said...

Well, I had a prime view of the back of the audience's heads last night, and I felt like they were totally engaged. No chatter or coughing, and crucially, they laughed at a particular moment in the second act when there hadn't been any gags for quite a while. I don't think a bored audience would have noticed it. Looking forward to comparing audience reaction tonight and tomorrow. See you later, Ferg.