How to Watch a Play

watching theatre


by John Ellis

It’s probably not a secret that actor’s egos tend to be incredibly fragile. Of course, if it’s not a secret, it’s because actors talk about the fragility of their egos on a fairly frequent basis (this actor included). Agonizing over poor reviews, deconstructing vague comments from the director, and attempting to interpret the audience’s response (or lack of response) all seem to be as much a part of the craft as memorizing lines, attending rehearsals, and getting drunk at the opening night party. Several weeks of an entire run were almost ruined for me by an audience member’s comment to me at the opening night party, “Wait! You’re in the play?! I had no idea!”

That comment put me into an existential tailspin[1]. Did I inhabit the role so deeply as to be unrecognizable away from it? Or, horrors, was my performance so bland and forgettable that it had been forgotten a mere two hours later? I never saw that audience member again, so I never determined where along that spectrum it was[2]; but her comment stuck with me for, well, apparently at least fifteen years.

But, there have been many instances throughout my career on stage that have reflected the opposite end of audience and cast interaction. I’ve heard things as extreme as, “Man, you were such on asshole on stage that I had to restrain myself from rushing up and punching you in the face!” and, “My friends are too scared of you to meet you!” Comments like that are gratifying, albeit a little weird to process at moments. However, the times that audience members engaged me after the show in order to compliment my performance, and, many times, ask me questions about my process and things like “how do you cry on stage?” were always, obviously, ego affirming. But is there a better audience response to those who make theatre? I believe so.

Beyond my personal experiences as an actor, I’ve witnessed audience members commenting on the actor’s performances frequently. In fact, I think that it’s fair to surmise that almost 100% of the plays that I’ve either been involved with as an actor, audience member, or in conversation about with those who had been in the audience touches, to at least some degree, on the actor’s performances. But, I’ve reached the point where I believe that if the majority of the audience member’s reflection, and definitely the entirety of their after-show reflection, revolves around the actor’s performances, either the play has failed, or the audience member has failed as an audience member.

Look, I get that friends and acquaintances are curious about my “professional opinion” after an evening at the theatre, but before moving on with the brow beating, I want to explain something about that “professional opinion” that may also serve as a soft transition back to the brow beating.

When we attend a play, and by “we,” I mean those actor friends of mine with whom I’ve discussed this topic and whose opinions agree with my point, we watch that play within the context of the time and place the production exists in. When we’re asked to attend the local high school production of Into the Woods featuring our next door neighbor’s kid, we graciously accept the invitation, although through gritted teeth, and go and watch the production, judging it based on what it is – a high school play. Yes, we get, probably better than you, that on one level it sucked; but our “professional opinion” isn’t judging it on that level. All high school plays suck when compared with the Broadway production of The Lion King that you and your family saw while on vacation in NYC three years ago. Same thing with community theatre – it’s not fair to expect the same level of acting from your dentists, accountants, and hair stylists, who are all working for free in their spare time, as is expected from professional actors[3].

Now, professional theatre – I recently had the privilege of seeing The Great Divorce at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC. After the play, friends that were also at the performance asked me my “professional opinion” of the acting. I responded that “my professional opinion is that I enjoyed the play immensely.” Not being a complete douche, I explained that I’ve read The Great Divorce once, and over a decade ago, at that. I don’t know enough about the material to have legitimate opinions about the choices made by the actors and director. Whether or not the choices served the content was beyond my ability to judge, but those choices were honest and believable, and that’s what mattered in regards to my ability to enjoy the play[4]. But that brings me back to the brow beating – I don’t judge/critique the acting while watching a play, and neither should you.

Or, to be more honest, I try not to judge/critique the acting while watching a play. If, for example, I’m watching a production of The Glass Menagerie, one of my favorite plays in which I’ve also had the privilege of playing the role of Tom, it can be difficult to not compare the choices on stage to my understanding of the play. I try not to do that, because that’s not why I’m at the play. At least, that’s not why I should be at the play. The audience should go to the theatre in order to engage with the content – with the story.

When I’m watching a production of The Glass Menagerie, I should be interacting with Tennessee Williams’ beautiful and devastating depiction of his personal betrayal of his sister. I should be existentially wrecked right after Jim kisses Laura and then immediately steps back, mumbling “Stumblejohn. I shouldn’t have done that.” In fact, even though the theatre artist part of my brain sees the choice of Jim stepping back way from Laura while mumbling that line, I shouldn’t allow different choices on the stage at that moment to take me out of the story[5]. My job as an audience member is to engage with the story, not with the ins and outs of how the actors are executing their craft; after all, the actors are executing their craft in the service of the story.

Circling back around to my experiences as an actor – after many years, too many, I arrived at the point where I found it much more gratifying when the audience wanted to talk to me about the content of the play instead of my acting. I mean, that’s why I was doing what I was doing – to tell them a story. It’s a bigger compliment for the audience to be excited about engaging with the actual story than it is for them to be excited about the actor “tricks” used in the service of that story. Most people don’t read a great novel, and then want to talk about how adroitly the author used the subordinate phrase. Why should theatre be different?

Stop marveling at the actors, and begin marveling at the story that they are telling. That’s how you should watch a play.

[1] Considering the role, Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, that mental turmoil probably aided my performance.

[2] Probably neither. That next morning, the first review came out, and I received probably the worst review of my entire career (although, there is still time for me to top it). That play became a mentally rough run.

[3] On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s also incredibly naïve and laughable when audience members make the claim that their dentists, accountants, and hair stylists are as good of actors as those that they saw on their NYC vacation three years ago.

[4] For the record, I am NOT stating that better choices would not have improved my experience as an audience member, assuming that better choices could’ve been made – remember, I don’t know. I’m stating that in the moment, with limited knowledge of the material/content, playing the choices honestly is what allowed me to enter into the material as an audience member.

[5] With the caveat that there are obviously choices that will undermine the authorial intent. But, that being said, there are a wide variety of choices that can be made that honor T.W.’s intent just as well, if not better, as the specific choices that I see in that moment.


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