How Theater Talks

Red velvet ropes loosely hug the bustling line of people outside the theater. The doors have opened and ushers begin checking bags and scanning tickets. Some are tourists who have been waiting outside, working to perfect their  New York selfie. Others, decked in expensive clothing, pull up by taxicab, waltz straight into the theater and have just enough time to comfortably read the program before the curtain rises. Some patrons have traveled all the way from New Jersey for their Friday night dates. There are also college students, having just sprinted from the subway station, still carrying their backpacks. And there will always be that straggling dinner couple who lost track of time after their third glass of wine and find themselves shamefully shimmying through the rows to their seats, though the show began 10 minutes ago.

Current Broadway performer Jonalyn Saxer spoke with Washington Square News about how audiences perceive the shows they watch.

“Whether audiences know it or not, how they are feeling in the moment affects what theater they choose to see,” Saxer said. “Those feelings are most often driven from what is happening in the world around us. Theater answers either the need to entertain in way of a distraction or immediate happiness, or as a way of engaging in a current cultural issue.”

The audience plays an important role when looking at theater as a form of political discussion or even artistic protest — theater is culture, and culture is inherently political. Associate Director of the NYU Tisch Classical Studio and Dramatic Writing Professor Daniel Spector said politics inherently holds some ties with theater.

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“Whoever you represent is going to be put underneath the scrutiny of identity politics,” Spector said. “Whenever cultural perception is represented on the stage through characters, it is sure to speak to the audience in a political or personal light.”

Current Broadway performer Jeff Heimbrock expressed similar sentiments to Spector’s, and contributed his own thoughts on how people interact with theater.

“The only thing that prevents it from being completely political is the way it is received,” Heimbrock said. “The collective inhale of a piece of theater is going to affect people in a different way.”

Any given audience is filled with a wide spectrum of people. Where someone grew up, what they do for a living, what language they speak, the color of their hair — even how they got to the theater that evening  — influences their shared responses to the performance.

“[The audiences’ reactions] depend on who is seeing the theater and what discourse and vocabulary they’re familiar with,” Spector said. “Are they there looking at the politics of representation, or are they there listening to the good tunes and watching some attractive actors onstage?”

There is a silent understanding in the space that lives between the audience and the performers. This perceptive energy allows the actors to tell a story while completely relinquishing agency to the audience members, thus allowing the audience to shape its own opinions and responses to what it perceives. Whether the crowd is overtly passionate, terribly defensive or utterly unenthusiastic, the overriding political and cultural values they hold will undoubtedly influence whatever their emotional critiques may be.

“Everyone is going to experience something different based on who you are, but the piece will remain the same,” Heimbrock said. “It’s a conversation really between the piece and the audience that in some ways will make it more political.”

Herein lies the belief that all theater has the ability to be political or act as a form of protest. When it began, the very core of theater was a way for people to respond to political and cultural events in a rhetorical light. For Spector, Shakespeare’s work is a prime example.

“One of the reasons I like directing Shakespeare is [that] it’s a way to not take a stance on a particular matter, and as a director I feel like my job is to get out of the way and to let the material speak for itself and to trust the material to go wherever it goes,” Spector said. “He doesn’t take a stance on whatever’s going on in his plays — in other words, he tends to advocate equally for everyone in his plays. You might say that itself is a political stance.”

The conversations behind Shakespeare’s plays have spanned even to the present day, because his writing is so truthful and reaches so close to the core of human interaction. Although the political sphere of today differs from Shakespeare’s time, the basis of cultural communication that lives through his plays is still produced.

“Theater — and new theater — only exists as a reaction to culture,” Saxer said. “In both storyline and content as well as the style of music, if people don’t feel there is a need for the show in the world, it won’t be produced or created.”

The small world of New York City theater acts as a continuous spiral of provocative, fertile material that recurrently blossoms into rich cultural conversation. The conversation is completely at the discretion of the audience. This is the political behavior that theater allows — it gives us a pathway into communication.

“The playwright, the actors, the director — nobody has total control over how their work will be received or reviewed,” Heimbrock said. “This is the great equalizer in theater.”

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 6 print edition.

Email Blair Best at [email protected].

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