Taming the Audience

By Timothy Daly

Contemporary theatre has many functions: it is a social purging, a religious ritual, an arena of political controversy, a laboratory for rapid and astonishing artistic innovation, a place where the community’s sense of itself is examined, challenged and ultimately affirmed. If audiences still believe that theatre’s job is to do all the above, then they’re not telling many theatre companies this.

A theatre director with over thirty years’ experience said to me recently, “Audiences only want to be entertained.” He did not say, “Audiences ALSO want to be entertained.” If audiences even half-believe this, then theatre has a big problem.

However, I also know that many an artistic director would love to offer their audiences “the best of the best”—the most challenging, amazing work they can find, but they often find it’s not taken up with half the enthusiasm they’d hoped. As a visitor to classical music concerts, I find it’s much the same thing there: many middle-class (and middle-brow) audience members are wary of “the new”.


This fear of the new and challenging also creates problem for writers. Playwrights can’t do their best work if the audience is lazy, indifferent to challenging theatre, or stuck on brand names (ie writers they already know). The risks in writing “a nice night out” at the theatre are less than aiming to write “an extraodinary night out”.

So how can writers be blamed? Put simply, for losing our nerve. We often forget why we gave up safe jobs (or are trying to). The memory of that extraordinary theatrical moment, the half-understood vision of something “never before seen”. What have we done instead? We’ve written plays we know are “more likely to be produced.” With one eye on the market, the audience, the craft etc, and another on what we really set out to do, an inevitable blurring of vision occurs. In
time, the insights afforded by that second eye fade, and we head for artistic safety, or television, or just move on.


Good work, rich work, can take a long time, anywhere from three years to a decade. People often speak glowingly of Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA. That play took a decade of careful nurturing, developing, testing and rewriting (not to mention the contribution of 30, yes, 30 dramaturgs.) I know of no company in Australia where anything like the long-range vision and `planning that created ANGELS is occurring. Instead I hear complaints of tokenism, sporadic and haphazard development, one-off readings, a dramaturg here, a dramaturg there. All of this means that the biggest, most ambitious works are simply not happening.

I said above that audiences are not communicating their preferences for more substantial drama to the theatre companies. Unless, of course, it’s by default: by their absence. You meet many people who say, “I don’t go to theatre anymore. It’s not exciting/stimulating/challenging enough.”

Essentially, I have 11 suggestions— or perhaps they are competing imperatives that we writers could absorb. It’s a balancing act. None is more important than the others. They should all be read in the light of their equally-compelling alternatives.

  1. Become devoted to the craft of writing. Put simply, the craft skill of many produced plays is lower than it should be. J.S.Bach, who saw his “career” of church composer as being one that he was called for, a vocation. He devoted his life to creating work according to standards much, much higher than were the current practice of his day. He didn’t have to. He simply believed it was part of the calling of being a composer. Of how many playwrights could we say, as we leave after seeing their shows, “She just keeps getting better”, “His dedication to his aesthetic is awe-inspiring”. “The power/technical accomplishment of his work is staggering/ brilliant.” I know as well as anyone that good work is very hard, and great work is a near-miracle, but theatre is the arena where miracles are expected, on a monthly basis.
  2. Define the sort of theatre you want to create. This involves a three- step approach. First, define how you— human being and artist see the world. Is it a monstrous thing? A bizarre thing? A comic fantasia? Second, clarify the constituent ingredients of that world– the moral, ethical, emotional, social elements. Third, invent or find the stories that most completely express the first two aspects. This area will be treated in more detail in a future article. It relates to finding what your own artistic voice is, and developing an aesthetic that accurately and richly reflects that. It can take years, but in the meantime, there’s something else you can do…
  3. (Re)Discover the joy of artistic growth. The broadening of craft skills and the development of one’s aesthetic should be an extremely satisfying activity, whose tingling pleasures make others jealous and want to join in. One of the greatest problems in many plays is the lack of a sense of drive, of natural, inevitable (yet organic) growth. Far too much discussion. Far too much episodic lurching from one scene to another. And yet, its development is not all that difficult.Hollywood will teach you what growth and drive is. Watch twenty good thrillers, as well as Shakespeare’s thrillers: MACBETH, JULIUS CAESAR etc. This sort of learning should be huge fun.

    Incidentally, having mentioned Hollywood Babylon, I should say this quite emphatically: The problem is not that “we are tired of well-made social plays”. Personally, I don’t believe at all in the “well-made play”. I only believe in the “brilliantly-made play.” Most plays that earn this gratuitous insult of being well-made— usually from young directors with two-and-a-half years’ experience and the complete work(s) of Artaud– these plays suffer from two problems. First, they didn’t set out to be innovative (a dangerous thing in theatre, which, for good and bad reasons, thrives on the new). And second, they trod overly-familiar social territory, and aren’t even especially well- made.

  4. Don’t flatter the audience unduly. Audience flattery is a type of play writing that tells its audience, “You are much cleverer than these idiots on stage. Let’s all relax and laugh at the fools.” Creating this type of bond simply devalues the audience and the act of theatre. Far better to lull the audience by gradually drawing them in, making them complicit in the lives of the characters.
  5. Give the audience a reason to work hard. What are you giving their mind to mull on? What senses are you pummelling/seducing? Or is it just the “ear- theatre” of words? What soul food are they getting? What dreamscape are you showing them? What theatrical tricks and sleights-of-hand are you dazzling them with? This all relates to the next point…
  6. Promise the audience a lot. It’s amazing how many of our plays start with openings that don’t promise much. Look at how much Shakespeare promises in his play starts. Personally, I’d rather go to a play that promised a lot of excitement, magic, tension, humour, spectacle etc and then failed. Much better than a play that “succeeds” because it set the bar so low, and didn’t promise much in the first place.
  7. Put the audience on stage. By this I mean, to create a situation where the audience can’t help but identify with, even to the extent of them saying, “That’s me!” about one or more of the characters. (How that occurs is complex, but essentially it relates either to the characters having a recognisable emotional life, or a social life that is comprehensible and interesting, etc). Then, once the identification occurs, take that character into extremely problematic territory, and watch the audience squirm, as it engages in some “What would I do?” speculation.
  8. Give an audience the most intense experience possible. It’s the major reason that even the “entertainment only” crowd roll up– to feel the energy, to feel the heat of it all. If you must, write for shock value, but mean it—and believe it. Read Sarah Kane’s BLASTED for an example of gale-force intensity.
  9. Be influenced globally, but take action locally. Be influenced by the best overseas writers rather than by any local writers whose work may exasperate you. Theatre is an international industry, with international standards. Having spent the months and years writing and rewriting, your task then is to hassle your local theatre company into taking your long-range plans seriously. Develop your own sense of “this play will be ready in three years.” Incidentally, anyone who thinks three years is a long time in play writing should be in something other than play writing.
  10. Write for different audiences. One way of reconciling “the problem of the audience” is to write a play that pleases both you and the (presumed) audience-type that goes to any particular theatre. A word of warning, however. You’re unlikely to succeed here unless you have an idea for a play that will actually give you enormous pleasure to write. You can write something as a “creative adventure”, but spending nine months to two years on a piece of commercial speculation is a sure way to kill your love of writing.
  11. Ignore the audience. Having one eye on the audience you’re communicating with does not mean having BOTH eyes on them. You, the writer, are the first audience. Your first task is to communicate, with full intensity, the richness of the initial vision that you first came up with. It’s only then that your second task comes up— to make sure that total strangers understand what you’re saying to them.

I have only begun to broach the complex subject of writer-and-audience. It’s a lifetime’s study. A bit like the art and craft of play writing.