On Audiences

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The main difference between theatre music and music for film or games or festivals isn’t the technology or the venue, it’s the fact that theatre is performed for a live and responsive audience. It may not seem like this would affect sound and music, but coping with audience reaction is a vital part of balancing and cuing music and sound. For example, if a show encourages laughter (say, by being funny) or applause (say, by being a blatant star vehicle), sound or music cues can be, and probably need to be, louder to ride over the higher level of ambient sound. Perhaps more important is the ability of almost every element of the theatre to time itself to anything. If the audience decides to give a standing ovation at the end of the song, the band can pause between sections, or the lights can give them a cue to sit back down again. As well as those positive occasions, the audience can do idiotic or distracting things that a prerecorded sequence cannot cope with. Take for example this anecdote from the Guardian Theatre Blog: (Great play – shame about the audience | Stage | guardian.co.uk)

“Then, at the most heart-stopping, breath-holding moment in the play – when one character opens a letter written to her by her recently deceased boyfriend – an audience member in front of me abruptly stood up and loudly declared, twice, to his companion that he was off to get a coffee, before banging his way out of the theatre. For a second everyone – both actors and audience – seemed stunned. To the actors’ enormous credit, they both managed to hold on to the pause and continue, more or less as if nothing had happened.”

If this was the kind of play which was timed precisely to a audio or video track the entire production would be unsynchronised until someone could rescue it. People (rather than machines) are able to improvise in these situations, creating theatrical magic out of humdrum hiccoughs.

The nature of the audience also dictates the nature of the music or sound that you use. Certain audiences appreciate complex difficult music, while other audiences call for simpler, more catchy, or less obtrusive sound. In reality a production will call for mix of complicated “serious” music and lighthearted or straightforward ambience depending on the mood of the narrative. In these circumstances music can have a cathartic role: after a particularly gruelling scene in, say, Hamlet, in which ghosts, poison and murder have appeared, the audience is in danger of being over-stretched emotionally. The entrance of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern is usually accompanied by something quirky or funny, giving the audience a chance to relax and enjoy the narrative. Otherwise, they get exhausted from three hours of blood, feelings and soliloquies. A well balanced score for any complex play will usually contain a full mix of tragic, supernatural and escapist compositions.

To finish, I’ll leave you with a remark by Norman O’Neill. He let’s slip that even a century ago audiences were not conducive to good theatre, and were prepared to listen to the serious only if it was balanced with irreverence. And also that audiences can be the worst thing about working in the theatre or concert platform (more on that later this week…)

“I think the only place where it is possible to play music of a more serious nature is at the beginning of the programme, before the people of the stalls and dress circle arrive. I have often remarked that the pit and gallery will listen quietly to a movement of a symphony just after they enter the theatre. This is usually about half an hour before the commencement of the play, and the stalls in front of them are still empty and the house quiet. Later in the evening they have the distracting head-dresses and evening gowns between them and the orchestra, which it is then almost impossible to hear at all from the pit on account of the talking stalls.”

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