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Terrifying the audience

I've been mulling over the relationship between the performer and the audience in the last few days. Partly it's because of the launch of this project, but it's also connected with seeing performances of Walden in different places and also reading what audience members have written in our comments book immediately after performances.

Anne Bogart (in her book A Director Prepares) writes about the necessity of Terror in the process of making theatre, and one of the thing she touches on is the need that she feels for an audience to be unsettled.  I was intrigued by this because the audience-performer realationship is so overt and essential to Walden.  Ewan (who performs in the play) has talked about the differing reactions from people to the direct eye contact he makes with them during the performance - most people seem comfortable with it (it's something many people comment on), but sometimes you can sense an unease.  It's possibly the latent fear of audience participation that probably lies within all of us (the feeling of "Oh god, please don't ask me to join in" as an actor approaches you with a gleam in his eye), but it's also perhaps a dislike of being somehow implicated in a performance.  Sometimes we feel more comfortable sitting in the dark while the actors perform in the light.  Tim Crouch explored this in England (at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh in 2007) by making sustained - and what I can only describe as Evangelical - eye contact with the audience during the first section of the show when you're still not sure what it's about.  I remember it being quite unnerving but also exhilarating.  Anne Bogart suggests that we should feel unnerved rather than comfortable as an audience as it means we're paying attention (I paraphrase).  

The other aspect of this is the nature of the material being performed, and this brings me back to the comments book.  A few people have commented on what they regard as a lack of "drama" in Walden, and this also came up when I was writing it - a few fellow-theatre people I talked to about the source material (in  the course of "what are you up to at the moment?" conversations) said "Yes, but what's the story?/where's the conflict?/where's the drama?" or other variations.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I read the comments from Findhorn - someone wrote quite a long comment which ended "I mean, where's the drama?"  To me, drama does not necessarily mean action (though it often does), though it should mean development.  There seems to me a very clear development in Walden, encapsulated in the moment when the narrator watches a solitary hawk playing in the sky above him as he fishes and realises that it represents something he can never be - truly free.  The story develops - he goes to Walden Pond to see if he can "confront life" and he leaves when he realises he's achieved something else instead.  From conversations I've had with audience members, it seems that a lot of people enjoy the absence of a traditional dramaturgical structure - one of the most important things to me about making theatre is that the form you use for a production is right for the content, and in this case I think it is right.  We could have made a more action-filled production, but that wouldn't have been what we felt Walden is about.  The key thing in relation to what I've been thinking about is that I understand that we have made a demand on the audience in the form we have used - they have to work to create their own understanding of what it's about, and it seems that quite a lot of people like that.  Maybe we should be challenging the audience more than we do?

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