Last night I went to a play at the Shakespeare Theatre. After the performance, some of the actors came back out on stage to answer questions. Someone asked what part the audience plays in a performance. One of the actors said that audiences have different personalities; one night everything will be hilarious and the next night you’ll have an audience who never laughs at anything.
This sounded very familiar to me. The audience is the last part of The Christmas Revels to fall into place, and every audience is different. The audience is so important that, for our final dress rehearsal, we bring in several hundred people who wouldn’t otherwise get to see the show to help us practice. In most stage productions, the audience pretty much has two roles: laugh at the jokes and clap at the good parts. Revels goes a step beyond, into the realm of audience participation.
Audience participation is scary. It makes people think of being dragged on stage and humiliated by a hypnotist. Revels isn’t like that. Yes, we are going to bring one person on stage, but it will be someone who wants to do it, and they don’t have to hop on one foot or quack like a duck or anything. For everyone else, there are opportunities to sing along – lyrics and music are printed in the program.
Some people only come to the show for one reason: to join hands and dance down the aisles in “Lord of the Dance.” At most performances, there are traffic jams in the aisles. This moment belongs to the audience – they even sing different lyrics from us. It wasn’t until I joined the cast that I learned that the refrain starts with the words “Dance, then.” The audience sings “Dance, dance” and that is ok. Not everyone wants to dance. We’re directed to offer a hand to audience members along the aisle, but if they’re not interested, you just smile and move on. Maybe next year they’ll change their mind. One of my best friends comes to see the show every year, but always sits firmly in the middle of a row so there’s no risk of getting dragged into the dance.
At the Shakespeare Theatre last night, the actor Ted van Griethuysen said he’d once been told something like “an audience is a group of people who are together for one moment in their lives.” I love this. We put on The Christmas Revels nine times – one dress rehearsal and eight performances – for nine different assemblages of people. Every time, we’re joining them for an authentic, joyful celebration and every time is different. You never know if an audience will applaud in a solemn moment or wait, breathless. Some audiences sing out, while others hold back. And on some special nights, in the silent moment of the poem “The Shortest Day,” when we’re listening for the sounds of our ancestors, a baby cries. I’m sure the baby’s parents are mortified, but I love it. That’s exactly the sound of our ancestors, isn’t it?