Apr 18, 2013

Beyond a Fourth Wall

Article on theatre/audience
by Jeffrey Fereday

I know a playwright producing successful mainstream narrative who seldom watches performances of his plays; instead he watches audiences. What would he seek by this? What would he see? Response... tension, release, moods of recognition, the responses of reaction; audience as mirror of his dramatic projection and theatrical devices. His paradox of orientation, and writerly emphasis on crafting a text to exact a desired effect of audience, together display a deep disinterest of audience, except in its necessity as effect of the text. It recalls the attitude towards audience one hears with advertising copywriters and market researchers.

Much writing for theatre positions audience 'outside' the performative text. The activity of audience is rarely treated as integral to the formation of theatrical moments, yet writing for performance is demonstrably social writing: its text is formed in dynamic engagement with audience, in a shared social moment which occurs here and now and refers here and elsewhere.

A writer's satisfactions within performative idioms are largely attendant upon this directness, the immediacy, the unpredictability, the malleability and fallibility of signs, the facility to build ideas in emotional space, the capacity to play people's hearts and minds, the dynamic identification of audience. Whatever a performance's content, its immediate subject becomes the audience. So how is audience included in performative address, and where does it sit in the design of the performative moment? In taking its place, the audience is silent, trained, receptive, and is identified through its activity of meaningful focus, its collective interests and social intelligence. In the everyday, critical situations appear without cause and pass without resolution, whereas an audience, critically engaged as subject of address, is specifically focused in an activity of crisis: its identification, involving assimilation of form and content, becomes meaningful since relations between expectation and resolution are made explicit before being brought to conclusion. As a performance unfolds in moments of profound reduction to the particular, it opens as expansive evocation – a closure, and yet an opening. What audience makes of its collective experience is beyond prescription, if not prediction, but as the performance closes, 'audience' disintegrates and becomes again its peculiar group of individuals whose thoughts scatter to worlds outside, whose experiences spill upon the social.

Performance demands that a writer release authority of direction, to open the text to expression, to allow space for others. However, in the ways that performance is developed through rehearsal and how it is discussed, the authorial is conventionally reinstated in performance as presence informing each detail which could be encountered by audience (though its precise source – actor, director, designer, writer, script, or accident, would remain equivocal, as speculation). In the process of production, the authority of information prescribed in the text moves in succession, subject to a passage of claim and usurpation, expression and interpretation, and eventual transaction to meaning. Thus a substitution can occur – although I refer here to 'writer' in the sense of one who scripts, the 'writerly' might involve each function in carriage of the authorial which forms the spatial moment of performance. The expanded space of writing is observed in the word 'playwrighting', where 'writing' is described by the more dimensional 'wrighting'.

Within conventional development of a play from script to the text of performance, the response of the audience is yet to be understood, but is audience's role already established as consequential by default of consideration? Has the centrality of the textual and its successor, performative presence, already shaped audience into that which performance anticipates as the direction and receptive space of its utterance, as the displaced silence into which it projects?

In the syntax of screenwriting, for each moment there is a dynamic action of perhaps one part denotation to four parts connotation, and the skill of the screenwriter involves modulating the powers of evocation and specificity within the play of association, expectation, inhibition, and desire for completion that s/he shares with audience. The screen is more than simply the two-dimensional surface, supporting a repertoire of shots and framings, whose centrality is undisputed, for its presence overwhelms its adjacent space – it becomes a spatial metaphor to the experience of the cinema, reforming itself as the mindscreen of cinematic reception. The darkness of the cinema auditorium directs focus upon the screen, and is peripheral to the attentions or concerns of the writer in constructing material for the screen. Darkness in the cinema is both functional, a convention culturalised upon a byproduct of a technology involving flickering light, and ideological – it literally separates and silences the body of the audience, dissolves its collectivity while bringing uniformity, focuses individual attentions towards the screen, minimises distraction, and prioritises that which is brought to light in cinematic performance as an experience of emotional and intellectual play.

Yet the cinema engages audience in a field of representation whose performance is fixed, immutable. A potential presented by the theatre is the possibility that something might happen. The form supports tension in realtime, for audience is capable of affecting performance, and vice versa. In theatre, the darkness is spatially active in a different way than in cinema, describing the dimensions of live performance and the physical separation of the audience. It cannot succeed in displacing the corporeality of audience, precisely because the shared time and space of performative text and audience maintains that performance is responsive, that the values brought to its text in response determine its moment of meaning and subsequent direction.

Yet the popular appeal of theatre is the surety that nothing will happen, and if it did, then it might be experienced as something extraordinary. The darkness that frames the performative space ensures that its audience remains separate, relational to both performance and the world beyond; even as its action gets under the skin, it is known that the performance is finally performance, that the performance will end, and that it will be taken as a memory of culturalised experience, remembered as an event. To go to the theatre, to enter the roleplay/neurosis of the theatre spectator, to be seated silently in a dark room, to watch people acting, to be acted upon, is to will one's entry into a directed conversation with alibi of entertainment. But here, as entertainment, theatrical performance is particular; one expects it to be some way critical, concerned with discussion of the social, and audience forms around that expectation. It does not support a pervasive stage-managed ambience which transforms performance into an inclusive spectacle, as in stadium rock concerts. There remains, in the formation of theatre audience, a cultural criticality, an understanding of performance as constructed, provisional; in its meaningful separation from that which it describes as its material, it resists an ambience of the hyperreal to which it lends form.

Thus the darkness of the theatre auditorium both encroaches upon the writerly mindscape and reproduces as a spatial metaphor within writing: to write within the form is to identify oneself as a writer in the shared space of audience, to situate oneself within such a space. One can shut the world out, and let it crash on in. To propose a model of writing/production which not only anticipates but supports a more active cultural space for audience would upturn the basis of writerly activity, inverting its point of view to a position of identification as audience. It would describe an experiential, cultural space the writer knows oneself as audience. On paper, the text might not present a coherent logic of implied completion, but rather assemble as a disparate, incomplete, contradictory argument to be formed in the exchange with audience, which is central to its action.

There is a notion within theatre which concerns the shared spaces of performance and audience – the fourth wall. A fixture of an imaginary architecture, it operates as a shifting construction, at times apparent between stage and audience (as if a window or screen), and at others behind the auditorium, forming momentarily an enclosure which effects an inclusion or separation of audience within the theatrical spectacle, and defines its space in exclusion of or opening to that in life which occurs elsewhere. Its shift may be effected by a word or gesture of performance, a cough or sneeze three rows behind, and its momentary dissolution could be catalysed by events beyond the arena of performance – physically, as in a passing siren, or psychologically, as in a thought which suddenly carries its train of association beyond the boundary of the theatre. Its implications are deeper to the writer than simply determining the mechanisms of push and pull, the big and little, as structured manipulation of audience emotion and intellect in the play of textual association. It becomes a variable connector linking the theatrical with its cultural space, and through elision of the performative with the space of audience, it establishes the wider field in which the theatre – as artistic action within the cultural – participates theatrically. One is not merely seated in the theatre, despite its architectural closure – one is simultaneously positioned within a life beyond, as cultural consumer, culturalised as spectator.

A text which confronts this situation directly is Peter Handke's Offending The Audience (1),  an essay for theatrical performance written in 1966. Its harrangue of ideological rhetoric and barbed insult to the flabby complacencies of bourgeois theatre locates the audience as complicit before spectacle, silenced in the theatre as in life, and mockingly taunts it towards individual and social action. In Society of the Spectacle (2),  Guy Debord presents a cohesive argument as to the historical ascendency of spectacle as all-pervasive ideological field and methodology, and its resultant alienation and depoliticisation of the cultural. The desire to activate the cultural audience, to engage the theatrical simulacra of culturalised passivities, has long been an issue within the insurgent criticality of the theatre – most notably this century in the dialectic material of Brechtian practice, but preceded less programmatically in performance work of the historical avant-gardes and taken up variously across a range of performative and theatrical practices which run against the one-way street of cultural consumption.

Yet the problem of audience is not simply a problem of identification in the 'real' space available to performance, whereby the theatre might construct allegorically upon conditions of a social real, but a question of social ontology itself as spectacular commodity. 'The spectator is at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere,' wrote Debord. Or to further twist that most distorted translation of Brechtian procedure, we have each become our own alienation effect, personalised as a unity of contradiction, a logical inversion of the social, a singular centre identified within a media-defined community. To each, alone, the crisis of meanings which has underwritten the ironic triumph of late-capitalist culture is visible everywhere yet nowhere, across all its vistas, within its structures, its ambiguities, beliefs and contradictions, and in all scales of relation and exchange, even as it remains invisible, impossible, where the present appears ahistorical, a surface culturalised as natural. So how might audience be progressively engaged within the performative?

Some in the theatre strive to direct an exchange in the personal. The first-person singular in close address is privileged within the rhetorical frameworks of public speech and theatrical performance. But performance itself prevents true conversation, so theatre can at best represent the direct personal exchange in simulation of a direct or conversational form. Because the utterance 'I' is a shifter in language, a claim available to whosoever takes up speech, the point at which presence declares itself within language and is identified, transacted, its reception is strangely ambiguous: the speaker's 'I' is identified as that of another while simultaneously being heard as 'I' in the form of personal identification, forming a neat closure. 'I', with its baggage of attachment, is presented in the theatre as the purest rhetorical emanation of personal presence, as an apparently direct, unmediated, and essential degree of communication. It is astonishing how effectively this mode works within performance to engage audience: a sudden switch to direct-address mode is immediately recognised, blushing the space with concentration of interest. But it is not what it appears. It is close, but not direct; it is engaging, but not conversation; it is not a personal exchange, but a social transaction in language.

Practitioners such as Lyndal Jones have successfully utilised the strength of this identification, while problematising its use through critical overdetermination of its conditionality. For example, in the performative versions of Prediction Piece #8 (WINTER/PASSION) the performers each contributed personal anecdotes which were incorporated into the performative text, but were structured there as choices for set pieces, available to any of the performers to claim and use as their own. Similarly, set pieces depicting intimate personal exchanges between two or three performers were repeated through the various cycles of the work, changing personnel and challenging construction of the personal within the social space shared with audience according to identifications of gender, age, and ethnicity. The supposed universality or interchangeability of the singular first-person identification is thus disturbed, problematised, by bringing to prominence elements of contingency and contradiction – identified in the social real of the audience – which inhibit its seamless transaction.

It is no co-incidence that work towards the open text in performance manifested historically within artistic activity of feminist imperative. Not only is the opening of cultural space central to the feminist agenda, but perhaps the socialisation of the female voice has itself effected such strategy: where to speak as a female is to be naturally (sic) attentive to its effect upon her audience, to have an ear for her appearance, to anticipate her response, to consider the reactions of others.

The following, by Lyndal Jones, describes not only certain methodological strategies which the artist developed variously over her 10-year series of performative and installational works, The Prediction Pieces, but also anticipates the engagement of the cultural audience and identifies the culturalised material of such relationship:

'Towards a manisfesto for an art that crosses disciplines' (3)
  1. A space is a place – it holds a history, it forms a context.
  2. An artist is a person (not an object, not a body). She/he has a history, forms a context.
  3. An artist is engendered and thus so are the projects she/he produces.
  4. What we do is what we say. (A form has a content. A content has a form.)
  5. An artist is engaged at all levels of production (in thinking as well as privately creating/ publicly performing) in a physical act.
  6. Many works are made, in producing one. Not only does process determine product – every thought and act we call process is also product.
  7. The relationship of the viewer/audience is with the art work, not the artist.

Alternative performance often works explicity to foreground identification and activity within the audience, and to sustain visibility of its materiality and conditionality of construction, opening the work in recognition that its meaning comes after response, but is openness a possibility of focus in conventional theatrical idiom or dramatic narrative? Would aesthetic, style, and form open if a principle of openness operates? What is the difference in the positioning of audience in texts which prescribe openness and those which do not? Perhaps the fundamental difference is that open work anticipates audience as representative of divergent points of view, but does not attempt to accommodate this difference by a structure of false unity. Instead it works this understanding of cultural specificity and conditionality, bringing to prominence certain moments of identification and contradiction. Whereas traditional narrative positions audience, via its Euclidean geometry, as a unity, the subject and site of a singular point of view, where difference is absorbed as superficial. To return to the playwright who watches his audiences, the point of view he locates is his own, and in this he remains unaware of his subjectivity, his personal inversion of the ideological.

Art in general depends on provoking incomplete experiences, frustrating expectations in order to arouse a craving for completion – a message conveys a certain amount of information which acquires its value only in relation to the receiver's response and only then organises itself into a meaning. A conventional Gestaltian analysis of this mechanism in musical discourse is described in Leonard Meyer's Emotion and Meaning in Music (4) – a stimulus catches the attention of a listener as incomplete and ambiguous, leading to expectation of a resolution, a clarification, which arouses emotion as it is delayed/frustrated/inhibited, producing a state of crisis and providing musical discourse with a meaning. Since the listener's dependence on the right form and her memory of previous formal experiences create expectations – formal (culturally determined) prefigurations through which the inhibited tendency will find satisfaction – then inhibition is accompanied by a pleasure of expectation, a feeling of impotence in front of the unknown, and the more unexpected the solution, the greater the pleasure when it occurs. The laws of form preside over musical discourse only on condition that they be constantly violated during its development, and the solutions the listener expects are not the most obvious but rather the least common, a transgression which heightens an appreciation of and pleasure in the final return to legality.

Consider the formal transgression which informs a new orthodoxy in the alternative theatre, a theatre of expressive forms borne of the gestural body or centred around the body as pre-eminent site of contestation. Notionally opposed to the presciptiveness of the inorganic text, its address nonetheless seeks expressive clarity which is specific to its audience, meaningful, beyond words. Thus its language is articulated as a system of probability and forms as no surprise, returning to invest the presence of the body as repository of cultural knowledge and site of social inscription. In this it performs paradoxically – the body as 'unmediated' signifier. The substitution of verbal for physical language is itself but a substitution of style, a substitution in systems of probability; its formal function sustains, its means describing as potentially fulsome a formal closure as a formed script.

Perhaps the primary accomplishment of mass culture is the construction of the social mass, through obliteration of cultural discussion except as directed within a narrow field which claims all meanings. Such identification is institutionalised within the operation and product of the larger theatre companies, whose market models construct demographic abstractions of audiences, their expectations and preferences, and so project strong determination upon the cultural product - until audience itself becomes cultural product. The systemic movement of this interrelationship is a closing spiral to conservatism, and the atrophication of its cultural production appears to conform directly to the size of the company and the precision with which its audience is figured as market.

Suppose it was possible to consider the theatre as separate from such realities, the theatre as a kind of idea, as it were. Suppose we could theorise an essence of theatrical exchange, an 'empty space' as described by Peter Brook (5). We could re-invent a cultural space of ritual beyond the daily repetitions of meaningless work and enslavement in prattle, propose a bond of common humanity, construct a moment of cultural community, and restore a spirituality to the occidental beyond its imprisonment in an economy of spectacular commodity. Some people I respect declare Peak Theatrical Experiences before the work of Peter Brook, but I suspect the cultural 'empty space' is already full of all kinds of shit. Could it be other than wishful thinking to propose reinventing a world and not get the first world turning up in the box seats?

But examination of text as a closed entity, replete with its intentionality of reference and authorised empiricism of source and even anticipating the meanings formed after audience response, suppresses that which is of genuine interest within the performative, and within progressive contemporary reading of any text – it ignores what might be made with it, how its work might travel within the dynamic field of circulated meanings, how it stirs the mix. 

Perhaps this is why I find some pleasure in the scraps and potentials of that lifeless body of theatre practice which Brook dismisses as formally and qualitatively inferior, precisely because the recirculation and currency of 'dead' cultural product provides culture's genuinely historical evidence, its burden of deposition, the proof of its process. Through my social identification of its dynamic relations it forms as context. Beyond development of changeable new decors, new thoughts, and new titillations, its foundation supports questions of some urgency to the social – Who wants to see acting anymore? Who wants to act?

  1. Peter Handke, Offending The Audience and Self-Accusation, (tr. Michael Roloff), Methuen Modern Plays in paperback, London:1971.
  2. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (tr. unknown), Black & Red, Detroit: 1970/77/83.
  3. Lyndal Jones, The Prediction Pieces (1981-1991) – Writings and Images from the Archive, (eds. Susan Cramer and Lyndal Jones), Museum of Contemporary Art – Contemporary Art Archive, Sydney: 1992, p9.
  4. Leonard Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1959.
  5. Peter Brook, The Empty Space, Pelican paperback, 1972.

© 1992

First published as ‘Beyond a Fourth Wall', in West (performance issue) #6/7, September 1993