The term actor-audience relationship refers to the connection between performer and spectator during a live performance. But just how does an actor engage with the audience during a theatre performance and what factors affect the nature of this relationship?
The particular style of a performance will often affect the actor audience relationship, as certain styles ask for unique acting and staging conventions.
Epic Theatre Style
The epic theatre style of production, popularised by Bertolt Brecht in 1930s Germany, asks for a very different actor audience relationship.
Non-realistic in style, epic theatre uses narrators, signs, projection of information and songs with messages, just to name a few typical conventions.
In epic theatre the performer’s relationship with the audience is intended to be an intrellectual affair with limited emotion.
The invislble fourth wall separating the stage space from the audience is normally broken many times in a single epic theatre production.
Proscenium arch staging refers to the arch above the stage opening of many traditional theatre spaces.
Common to theatre buildings across the world, the proscenium arch allows for the audience to be positioned on just one side, hence those far away from the stage, or indeed in the balcony, have a very different relationship with the performers than those patrons seated in the front row of the stalls.
A soliloquy involves a character speaking inner thoughts aloud on stage, either without other characters present, or if so, not within earshot.
Although not asking the actor to directly address the audience, the use of a soliloquy enhances the relationship between performer and spectator because only the audience is privy to the spoken information.
Traverse staging is similar to the typical outlay of a fashion show with a rectangular acting space surrounded by an audience on both of the longer sides. It has technical challenges in terms of staging, but allows for a relatively intimate actor audience relationship.
However, the length of the rectangular stage can be problematic for spectators seated towards either end. While it is fun to be a part of a traverse production, this type of staging is uncommon in contemporary theatre.
Representational acting ignores the presence of the audience and adheres to the convention of the invisible fourth wall existing between the acting and audience spaces.
Realistic and naturalistic dramas employ representational acting.
The nature of the actor audience relationship is one of complete separation, both physically and otherwise.
The aside is an effective acting convention allowing the audience to become more involved in the plot on stage.
While not as powerful as a direct address, the aside involves an actor communicating to the audience “on the side”, without the awareness of other characters.
The relationship between actor and audience is enhanced with the use of the aside. Information communicated across the fourth wall is usually a secret about upcoming plot action or the revelation of a character’s inner feelings. Now, the audience feels as if they know more about what is going to happen next than other characters do!
Thrust staging consists of a three-sided performance space and was most popular in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The famous Globe Theatre on the banks of the River Thames employed a thrust stage.
Presentational acting acknowledges the presence of the audience and seeks to break the invisible fourth wall between the actor and audience.
Conventions that achieve this include direct address, song, asides, narration and even actors physically leaving the stage and entering the audience area during a performance.
The nature of the actor audience relationship is more intimate and engaging than with representational acting.
The nature of the physical space will always be a determining factor in any actor audience relationship.
End On Staging
End on staging employs a similar premise to that of the proscenium arch stage – in both cases the audience is positioned on one side and the box attached to this side (or end) is where the actors perform within.
Although popular, this type of space severely impacts the nature of the actor audience relationship. How intimate is your experience from the very back row?
Theatre of Cruelty Style
Theatre of Cruelty, a form of theatre spearheaded by Antonin Artaud, asked the performers to be positioned on all four sides of the action, sometimes from galleries above.
The centre acting area was usually rectangular and performers were specifically instructed the strongest positions were the four corners.
Artaud aimed to deliberately entrap the audience in the centre with the intention of making them weaker than the performers they were surrounded by.
This was a strategic manipulation of the actor audience relationship – intimate in nature, but unlike Grotowski and his poor theatre style, Artaud aimed for an unequal status between actor and spectator.
Round / Arena Stage
In the round staging, otherwise known as arena theatre, has the acting space at the very centre of the performance. This space is not necessarily round or circular and is often a square or diamond.
The key factor is the audience surrounds the stage on all sides. It is therfore a very intimate actor audience relationship by the very nature of the space and the short distance the spectators are from the action.
However, if the space is very large (e.g. an indoor arena) then even when positioned on fours sides of the stage, spectators can be still a long way away. At any one time in arena staging the actor will have their back to some part of the audience.
Direct address involves the perfomer directly facing the audience at a given moment in the performance. This acting convention is considered strong and powerful in terms of its impact. The actor audience relationship is enhanced considerably.
Generally understood to be a non-realistic technique, the direct address can be made even more potent if the performer hones in on one small section of the audience before them.
Poor Theatre Style
The poor theatre style of performance, originating from the theories of Jerzy Grotowski in Poland in the 1960s and 70s, eliminated the concept of separating perfomer and spectator during performances. In this instance, style determined space.
Poor theatre stripped away the excesses of theatre, leaving only the performer, audience, limited props and basic sound and music. The actor became paramount.
By deliberately performing works in non-traditional spaces, Grotowski asked his actors to perform in and around the spectators who were stratgically placed to view the performance from many angles.
The result was what Grotowski referred to as a “communion” between performer and spectator in a very intimate actor audience relationship.
The nature of a thrust stage allows for a more intimate actor audience relationship, as the audience surrounds the acting area on three of the four sides. But from a technical perspective, it is impossible for a performer to face all sides of the audience at once, which can at times become disengaging.