How to Trust Your Audience (And Improve Your Acting)

It’s easy for someone to tell an actor “don’t ask for laughs,” but when it comes to practical application, how do we know when we’re “asking for it” and when we are eliciting an organic response? More importantly, why does it matter?

The short answer to the latter is that when actors ask for the laughter, tears, or any specific response, they are breaking the actor-audience trust. Rather than genuinely living in the world of the play and allowing the audience to react honestly, the performance becomes choreographed to control the audience’s reaction. This is really no fun for anyone. It cheats the audience of the individual discoveries that make storytelling profound. It reduces the actor to a panderer. Art as we know it dies a slow, suffocating death.

So dust off your cape of artist integrity and clip that bad boy around your neck. It’s time to swoop into the subtle land of theatre philosophy and save the day!

Here are some Dos and Don’ts that will help you trust yourself and your audience.

DO:

Invite the audience in: I’ve known actors to describe the difference between acting in theatre and acting in film as the difference between projecting your energy out and inviting the audience in. That can be a helpful mental image, but as per usual, there are complexities to be mined. There are moments within any acting, theatre or film, when it is necessary to harness the kind of power that throws energy out, and also times when drawing an audience into your inner life best serves. I think the thing to remember is however you are focusing your energy, you should be willing to invite the audience to join you. Even when playing a character villainous or aloof, if the audience has no promise or possibility of seeing the gears turning, even if only for a moment, they will disconnect.

Believe what you say: If you can find an honest relationship with the text, it won’t matter how hollow the sentiment or ill-structured the narrative. Committing fully will trump showmanship every time.

Let it go: At a certain point, you have to trust. Trust that the text is clear, that the director has unified and honed the message, and that the work that you and your castmates have put in is honest and valid. The audience is smarter than you think; there is no need to do their job as well as yours.

DON’T:

Ask for the dadgum laughs: The death of comedy or tragedy is to be conscious of playing comedy or tragedy. Forget what you think the show should be. Play your objectives, fight for what you want, and the rest will fall into place.

Comment on your work: In layman’s terms, this is basically when the actor is aware of the styles and tropes of his own performance to the point of breaking the fourth wall. It’s a wink to the audience. There are styles of comedy that rely on a certain amount of commenting, and use it beautifully. (Think Airplane! or basically anything Mel Brooks has ever touched). But for the love of what little is left sacred in this world, if you are not in one of those shows (and you will know if you are), please refrain from commenting on your work. The audience paid for their tickets. They know what they came to see. If you are commenting on comedy because it feels cheesy to you personally, that’s disrespectful to everyone who honestly enjoys the show for its own sake. Mostly it ends up looking juvenile rather than witty.

Rely on tricks: Every actor has them. Those little things you do that always get laughs, or gasps. They can be irresistible—you’ve crafted bits and pieces masterfully and you know they get results, so why not indulge in the safety of habit? But the problem with habits is that they become stale. Tricks sacrifice specificity—there is no bit that applies perfectly to every character and every script. And ultimately they are more in service of the actor than the story. So save them for a rainy day—know your strengths, and use them as a springboard to fresh discoveries, rather than a net to catch you when you’re nervous.

Theatre is subjective. It is a process with many variables, often chaotic, discordant, or unsound. It is a natural thing to want to control the result. But as I constantly try to remind myself, storytelling in all its incarnations thrives on the collaborative. If you allow yourself to trust the audience, you are allowing them to learn, to be inspired, to be entertained. And that frees you up to act.

This entry was posted in Acting Tips, How To Guide and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com