January 2014

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January 2014

News From David Grindle, USITT Executive Director

The Essential Element

The snark-fest on Facebook and Twitter that erupted with NBC’s airing of the staged version of The Sound of Music had vast numbers of people in our country talking about theatre! Positive or negative, they were talking about theatre.

While I did watch a portion of the live show, I also watched, a few days later, the concert staging of Sondheim’s Company with the New York Philharmonic. It was during that show that I realized what I was really missing from The Sound of Music: an audience.

Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote their brilliant piece to include a cast member that NBC skipped. The piece was written to have audience interaction.

As a stage manager, I knew as well as the performers when the audience was dead. No energy coming from the house meant every person on stage had to work harder than ever to bring life to the show. The audience is a vital part of live performance. With them, we develop a symbiotic relationship that brings a dimension to performance that shows depend upon.

Great composers and story writers know that applause, laughter, or even a pause before either will impact the performer on stage. But they also know how to coach the audience on when to interact. In fact, they depend on that interaction as do the performers and those of us who work behind the masking. The applause of an audience, because the designer has envisioned a magical scene change that the crew pulls off, feeds the entire cast and crew, and energizes the performance.

The performance of Company at Alice Tully Hall had that interaction. Even viewing it as a recording after the fact, I can participate because the interaction of stage and house are there. In hindsight, that’s what I missed from the portion of The Sound of Music that I saw. There was no audience laughter at jokes, no applause for radiant musical moments (and Climb Every Mountain deserved some serious applause), and the actors had a flatter performance because of it. In many respects some of the vitriol on social media about the flatness of the performance was not the fault of the actors. Having no audience is as deadly as having a flat one.

Kudos to the network for putting live theatre on television. You can debate casting all you want. I would have loved to have seen any number of theatre professionals in this production, but without an audience, the greatest cast would have had to pull all of their ability to overcome the absence.

Often we get so focused on what is on stage, we forget that the people in the house are truly a vital part of what we do. May you all have live houses for many years to come.

David Grindle

We'd like to hear your comments on this story.
Please e-mail David at david@usitt.org.