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Two Different Spaces; Two Different Audiences

August 7, 2008

I've long been aware of the impact that a performance venue can have on an audience. But it wasn't until I saw two shows on two adjacent days in two very different venues by the same company that I realized just how differently audiences behave in contrasting settings.

Last week, I caught two of the four productions in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's summer season: Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well and Lanford Wilson's Burn This. All's Well was performed in the Glen -- a magical and surprisingly intimate outdoor space framed by towering redwood trees. Burn This was produced in the Festival's great indoor space, which also feels quite cozy despite its fairly generous 500+ seat size thanks to the gentle rake of the stadium seating around the apron stage. The audience for the Shakespeare was one of the most responsive I've ever seen at any production -- indoor or outdoor. They cheered and whooped with delight in the comic scenes. They yelled out stuff like "oh no!" when Bertram rejected Helena. They clapped between scenes and generally made themselves very much part of the experience. Contrastingly, the Wilson crowd was much more subdued. They clapped only at the end of the entire play. You could have heard a pin drop in the room, it was so quiet.

I should start out by stating the obvious: In order to compare the impact of spaces properly, I would need to see the same -- or at least very similar -- plays produces in the two venues. Burn This is clearly a very different kind of theatrical experience than All's Well. Yet in some ways the two works are comparable -- they're both pretty intense plays about human relationships, they're both dark comedies, and the key characters in both dramas are complex and fully-rounded. Given that a large percentage of SSC's audiences are subscribers and go to see most if not all of the four shows on the festival's program, a comparison doesn't seem completely spurious.

So why should the audiences respond in such polar ways? It's hard to believe that the content and presentation of the plays themselves are responsible for this phenomenon. I have a hunch that the reactions of the crowd have more to do with the settings than anything else. If Burn This were performed in the Glen, amid those wonderful trees and with people lounging on blankets, munching snacks and drinking wine throughout, I think audiences would be much more vocal. Similarly, All's Well would probably provoke less of an overt reaction if it were played under a lighting grid than a leafy canopy, with the audience sitting in regular rows of theatre seats without the snacks and drinks.

I'd be interested to find out if the experience I had at these two plays matches the one for audiences seeing the other two productions in SSC's current season: Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and Itamar Moses' Bach at Leipzig. On a related theme -- I wonder how contemporary plays like Moses' and Wilson's would play outdoors? Putting the Bard under the stars is the obvious thing to do. I wonder if the festival's new artistic director Marco Barricelli will ever be bold enough to stage a newer work in the Glen and bring Shakespeare inside?

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