Tonight was our first audience at the Capitol Theater! It was exciting to finally share our creation with the 1600 friends and family that attended our final dress rehearsal. Before it started, the whole cast was buzzed, nervous, excited. After the curtain came down at the end, I sang to our genie, Michael James Scott, “We can never go back to befoooooore!” a la Ahrens & Flaherty. Tonight we crossed over a threshold, giving away what was once our private creative space. It’s like spending 6 weeks making a fantastic cake, and then watching everyone enjoy it and eat it up. But the process of making it ready, making it perfect… the anticipation phase… it’s done.
What changes in the show when there’s an audience? It’s difficult to explain. Scientific studies have shown that someone’s observation of particles actually changes how they behave, and I would venture to say that the same is true for actors. Even though we are focused on showing up with the same honesty and sincerity that we had rehearsed with (before over a thousand strangers were watching), something else has been layered into the mix. There’s now an added element of expectation and uncertainty, like jumping into a pool of water without knowing the temperature first.
How can we do our job onstage without being affected by all of those eyes? All of the reactions? Or the lack of reactions? Is it even possible?
I don’t think so. And I don’t think that’s the goal. You don’t want to act in a bubble, with an invisible concrete wall between you and the audience. If you did, then how could they possibly feel your energy and your character’s experience through such an impenetrable barrier? And the whole point is to take them on the journey with you. Be fully present in the moment onstage, while also inviting them into it.
Maybe, in this way, acting onstage is different than acting on-camera. I was told by a major TV casting director in NYC that I need to make the viewer feel like they are watching a private moment. They need to believe that I don’t know they’re watching, as if they’ve gained access to a secret moment. Michael Cane teaches this same notion: that if you’re rehearsing with another actor and someone can tell you’re rehearsing your lines, then it won’t work on camera. Instead, your rehearsal should sound like a real conversation if it were overheard by a stranger. Read more of his brilliant on-camera acting lessons here.
When acting for the camera, you definitely have to be connected to the other actors in the scene with you, but not necessarily to the audience (ie- the camera). Legendary film actor Eli Wallach supposedly blew up angrily at a film director who said something to him about the camera when he was in between takes on set. He didn’t want to think about the camera because it distracted him from being authentic, and just talking to his scene partner as if no one else was around. So perhaps maintaining a connection to (and awareness of) the audience is a task solely for theater actors. And it’s one that you can only practice once the audience takes their seats, which is why Preview performances (which happen before a show’s official Opening Night) are so important.
The audience plays a vital role in the world of theater. They are the guinea pigs, the testing ground, the ocean of miraculous transformation waiting to be transformed. Like a baby who is taking in the world around her, and reacting to each and every smell, sight, smile from a stranger. The audience is equally affected by every aspect of each performance, and our ability to transform them (like making a baby laugh) is the whole point of theater. Without them, the beautiful cake that we baked for 6 weeks would sit perfectly untouched, uneaten, and unknown. And what’s the point of creating something that doesn’t affect anyone else? Creativity definitely has its purpose, and when it’s nurtured and expressed, it does help encourage individual growth and self-fulfillment. But in my opinion, that approach for a career would be self-serving, and lead to a lonely existence. As actors, we strive to make energetic waves that affect the audience. At the end of the movie Into the Wild, (spoiler alert) the main character learns that “Happiness is only real, when shared.” Similarly, I believe that theater is only meaningful, when shared.
At the end of the song “A Whole New World,” Jasmine and Aladdin sing the words “Let me share this whole new world with you.” Fortunately, from this day forth, the Australian cast of Aladdin will always have an audience to share with. As the genie proclaims at the end of the show each night: “It looks like my work here is finally done.” Audience transformed through shared experience = Mission accomplished.