New Millennium, Community Theater and Audience

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New Millennium, Community Theatre & Audience
by Jane Shannahan (BA; PGDips Bus & Admin/Event Management; MMgt)

“Primitive rituals were the first form of drama” (Barba & Sanzenbach, 1965, p. 154). Primitive theatre could be termed religious as the main aim was to conjure the gods for a variety of practical reasons, e.g. warding off disease. Early societies put value on the repetition of traditions and folklore that were handed down verbally and visually, manifest over time via movement/dance, sound/music, masks, and the taking on of characters. It has been suggested that early Indo-European societies related to a holy triumvirate comprising “a supreme god, a warrior god, and a civil god” (Dumézil, 1968, 1971, 1973, cited in Qiuyu et al., 1989, p. 15). So ritual theatre and religion were intricately bound up with each other and covered all facets of life over diverse regions. The dramas would generally be led by proscribed individuals, e.g. shamans, but all the tribes-people took part and had a part to play. We can know something about ancient rituals because some remain: “even today, one can see numerous forms of "primitive theatre … ancient forms closely connected with religious ritual that have been preserved in certain remote regions as living fossils, essentially unchanged by modern civilization” (Qiuyu et al., 1989, p. 12).

Intrinsic to the original notion of (ritual as) theatre is its two-way operation in that the audience were as significant as the performers, and today, without an audience, a performance is not theatre. Where once the drama might take place, geographically speaking, anywhere in the community and environs, modern drama came to be performed in a specified place: the theatre. With the advent of the raked stage, elaborate true-to-life sets, the proscenium arch, technical wizardry, and the darkened auditorium, the spectators became steadily segregated from the ‘action’ (Kershaw, 2003). The curtain was there to change the set away from the audience gaze – a further separation of the modern shamans and the tribe.

To act is to perform in the dramatic sense, but act also means to take a stand, to take action (Boal, 1992). To do or act comes from the Latin agere which is also the source of ‘agenda’. The terms audience and auditorium are derived from the Latin root audire, to hear. These simple words sum up what became the dampened down role of the tribes-people. Despite the modern emphasis on inclusion in many areas, the tribes-people at the theatre have been relegated to listeners, positioned in the listening area, remote from the engagement (the agenda!) taking place before them.

Acting in the 21st century is mainly about entertainment and practitioners (especially in films) are still regarded with awe and are in receipt of high accolades. When we shower tributes upon actors we say that their rendering “was so real” and that “I really felt their emotion”. This in an era when many of us struggle to express emotion in our actual lives. We put value on those who can be emotional on cue and often we laud the storyline alone. It is no secret that audiences like to identify with what they see in performances and this must hark back to early times when the audience was as vital as the performers. As in rituals from the past, we want the themes to be of importance to us – more than that, we want the performance to be about, and sometimes by, us. It is interesting to note that “theatre involving only the spoken word, with no music or dance, is rare on a world scale, even though it is the commonest unmarked form of theatre in the West” (Beeman, 1993, p.382). This then also contributes to the desire to be involved when text alone is everything to the event.

Audience Re-evaluated and Re-valued
Demystifying performance by offering alternative ways of working helps make theatre accessible to more people. Originally, ritual performance was likely central to a society’s...
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