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The way an audience experiences and appreciates a play Essay

Essay Topic:

‘The way an audience experiences and appreciates a play…is by no means governed solely by what happens on stage. The entire theatre, its audience arrangements, its other public places its physical appearance, even its location in a city, are all important elements of the process by which an audience makes meaning of its experience’. Discuss and analyse Carlson’s statement in relation to at least one of the theatre events you have studied.

Marvin Carlson makes a very valid and observant assertion here that I feel is pertinent to the study of theatre as a whole and universal issue. The idea that ‘the entire theatre’, the physical space in which a play is performed affects the audiences understanding of the theatre event, is one which, whilst has ‘remained rather narrowly focused’, ‘has long been generally accepted as a legitimate, indeed, essential part of the historical study of both drama and theatre.’1 In this essay then, I will discuss and analyse this idea (which should not remain ‘rather narrowly focused’) in conjunction with Carlson’s statement, and try to expand upon the issues he raises. In doing so, I will draw upon what I have studied in this module, and how I feel the statement applies to the theatre texts and events I have encountered.

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Firstly, I think that to understand Carlson’s belief fully, semiotics must be addresses as they cannot be removed from the issues dealt with in the statement. Semiotics ‘the study of signs – those objects by which humans communicate meaning’2 is imperative if we are to explore how humans make meaning from ‘audience arrangements’ or the theatres ‘physical appearance’, to name only two of the elements from Carlson’s statement. As Charles Pierce puts it, ‘how the audience receives and interprets signs; the semiotics of the entire theatre experience – the ‘appearance of the auditorium, the displays in the lobby, the information in the program, and countless other parts of the event as a whole’; and the iconic relationship of theatre to the life it represents’3

So semiotics is manifest to this investigation, of how ‘the signs’ make meaning. I shall now explore these ‘signs’ in the statement, and how they contribute to the theatre event as a whole. Carlson first mentions ‘audience arrangements’. The audience’s space and seating undoubtedly affects their overall experience. Who they are sitting beside and how close they are to the sage, whether it is tiered seating or they are made to sit on the floor, even if they are comfortable or not. The theatre’s physical appearance, inside and out, its d�cor and colours all make meaning for an audience member. Where the theatre is located, in relation to other buildings, its predominance in that town or city, again affects what someone will take away from their theatre visit. For example, when I had the opportunity of visiting New York for a drama trip with my school, we were fortunate enough to get the chance to see a Broadway show. The fact it was in Broadway, and was so infamous had me very excited about the production of ‘Chicago’ we were going to see. The bright lights of New York along with the stunning buildings and culture left me dazzled. Disappointingly, the show wasn’t as good as expected, however, I wasn’t as disappointed as I would have been had I went to see it in, say, The Odyssey in Belfast, somewhere I have become used to. The city and its glitter had already made meaning for me. As Whitmore says ‘When I go to Broadway I expect to see an expensive, highly professional, commercial production.’4

These issues of the entire theatre and its surroundings are what Whitmore calls ‘framing systems’5, and these ‘framing systems’ can be witnessed throughout history. Hamlet was a play we studied this semester, and in Shakespearean times, going to the theatre involved standing on ‘earth rich in hazelnut shells and apple cores. This was part of their experience, as was the shifting light and shade of a London afternoon.’6 Moreover, theatres in Shakespeare’s time were ‘located on the fringes of the city in rather questionable neighborhoods’7 These aspects would have affected the meaning an audience made out of a showing of Hamlet at the time. In Greek theatre, the plays were performed as ‘part of citywide religious festivals honoring the god Dionysus[…]Plays were produced for contests in which playwrights, actors, and choruses competed for prizes and for distinction among their fellow citizens. These contests, held in an outdoor amphitheater adjoining the sacred temple of the god, followed several days of religious parades and sacrifices,’8 Again all these factors would have added to the way a Greek Audience would have experienced and appreciated a play, for instance, a production of Sophocles Oedipus the King or Euripides Medea perhaps. Indeed in Medieval Theatre, audiences viewing a play which took place on a stage in a cart could not help but be affected by their surroundings! These are only three examples which illustrate just how much the elements Carlson speaks of make meaning in a theatre event, even in these three periods, when semiotic study was unheard of.

To come back to the twenty-first century, Lehmann’s idea of ‘postdramatic’ theatre (which suggests we move away from postmodern to a more dramatic and theatrical theatre)9 concurs with Carlson’s statement. This twenty-first century theory involves the audience and actor relationship and explores non-theatrical spaces or site-specific theatre10. A theatre event we encountered during this module which could be described as ‘postdramatic’ was a project called ‘pvi Australia’. This involved an oblivious audience, getting on a bus with no idea what was happening. Their was a man leading the project wearing only a pair of red speedos with his teeth painted red! As well as exploring Lehmann’s postdramatic issue of audience participation, this project looks at the theatre event as a whole. The members of the audience would have been affected majorly by who was there, the physical appearance of the bus, and their surroundings. These elements, which Carlson speaks of in his statement, I argue, make more meaning for the audience than any text or dialogue, as is the nature of this type of project.

Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is a piece of experiential theatre which involves a woman’s inner thoughts and feelings toward her desire to commit suicide. To further develop my argument at this point, I am going to take this as a case study for Carlson’s statement and imagine myself going to see it at a theatre, and how I would make meaning from it (drawing on my own personal experience of many visits to the theatre.) Firstly, depending upon the type of day I’d had I would either be in a very good mood, and feel optimistic about my theatre visit or I would possibly be troubled or tired from a long day. Next, my journey there involving my anticipation, would come into play, who I was with, whether in a car or public transport etc. When I reach the building the location and architecture would strike me and I would either feel positive about it or negative. If it is a derelict building, not that well known, I might expect the drama to be of poor quality, however, if it is a place I’d been many times (such as the Grand Opera House) where I had enjoyed plays before, I would be of the frame of mind I was going to see a good piece of theatre. As Whitmore says ‘Where a performance is located within a city can influence the anticipated meanings of a theater experience […] I may be completely wrong about these assumptions, but they nonetheless sway my thinking about the event.’11 He goes on to say ‘The exterior architectural features of the theater itself, or the visual aesthetics of an outdoor location, contribute to the signification of a performance event. […]

Not only the size but other aspects of the theatre fa�ade-how ostentatious it is, whether or not it has a marquee, its color, the graphics-all contribute to the framework of a performance.’ (p. 38). These would all affect my meaning as I absorb them. The next place I would enter would be the lobby and as Whitmore goes on to say on the next page of his ‘Framing Systems’ (39) the ‘posters, models of the set, pictures of the cast, and sketches of costumes[…]help the spectator become aesthetically, intellectually, or emotionally engaged in the production.’ I myself would be looking for these, and if I hadn’t seen the play before would be gathering information from them. In the case of Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis they might offer hints at the deranged mind of the main female character, and I would begin to wonder what was ahead. As I enter my seat I would see who surrounded me, what sorts of people and, even though sub-consciously at times, be taking in their reactions as the drama unfolds. So, before I have even seen the piece, all these elements, most of which Carlson mentions in his contention have created meaning for me and affected my overall experience of the event as a whole. Once I had actually observed 4.48 Psychosis, I would either accept it and enjoy it, or dislike the disconcerting tone of it and leave more depressed if the surroundings were dismal also.

In conclusion, it is clear that Carlson’s statement is one that definitely applies to the theatre event. Whilst his assertion is definitely an important characteristic of how an audience takes meaning from theatre, I am of the same school of thought as Jon Whitmore when he says:

‘While framing devices do shape the reading of a performance of some, or even many, audience members, these framing devices never govern all spectators. The performance itself will be the final signifier of meaning: frames […] prepare the spectators and help refine and focus their concentration’12

Carlson, however, was undeniably exact when he said audience experience and appreciation ‘is by no means governed solely by what happens on stage.’ His elements are simply aspects of the expansive nature of the theatre and its affect on audience, one which is continually being investigated.

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