The audience thermometer

I quit taking formal courses many years ago. Nowadays I just watch … and I listen. One of the things I’ve watched and observed most closely over the years are audiences. I’m blessed to spend a good deal of my time trying to out-guess one particular audience or another and over time I’ve come up with a few observations that may or not be true, but I’m writing and this and not you, so I’ll tell you what I’ve discovered about people sitting together watching a show.

1. Even though it may be more uncomfortable, people respond better when they’re sitting close together. Spread them out and they won’t laugh as much. I’m not sure why this is, but perhaps when they’re sitting close enough they can feel each other jiggle.

2. Although the ideal temperature for a theatre may be 72 degrees, a too cool audience will respond in a livelier manner than if they’re too hot. So I guess the summation of observations one and two is to put your audience in a freezer and pack them tightly together.

3. An audience member will laugh more readily if he or she knows the people sitting around them. We’re careful about chuckling around strangers. Any actor will admit listening to a pre-show audience from back stage and gauging how the night will go. If they don’t know each other and they’re quiet, then your comedy may be in trouble. If they roar with the laughter of friendship before the curtain goes up, you’ve got it made. They don’t even have to jiggle.

4. Anyone who’s attended our local Playhouse on the Square might attest to this one: We tend to laugh when we see other people laugh. In most theaters, you’re all facing the stage, which is a good thing, I guess. But in theater-in-the-round or in the case of the Playhouse, the three-quarters round, you can also see the faces of other audience members. Watching another laugh seems to give you permission to do so yourself.

5. This is no joke: the people with front row tickets really do come in late.

6. Since Shakespeare’s time, the adage has held that matinee crowds are dead. In fact, Shakespeare did mostly matinees. His night spotlights were spotty at best. However, in recent years this has changed albeit slightly. Twenty years ago you found yourself doing a 2 p.m. matinee on a Sunday afternoon to an older crowd who were missing their nap so they sometimes did it during Act II, but more and more our matinee crowds consist of families. Friday nights continue to be the “hot nights” for audience response followed by Saturday evening, but Sunday matinees are starting to creep up like old underwear.

7. Which leads me to the observation that more and more people are attending matinee performances. Perhaps our theater crowd is aging, but for whatever reason, the Sunday shows often sell out first.

8. Audiences come to see a show and not a long, drawn-out curtain speech urging them to buy a season ticket, turn off their cell phones, patronize the refreshment stand at intermission and hear a corny joke. I came to see “Hamlet,” not the Home Shopping Network.

9. An audience will give you about five minutes before they decide they like the show or not. If you don’t grab them in the first few minutes then it’s possible to get them back on your side, but it’s not easy.

10. Every comedy needs a sparkplug, a single audience member who’s not afraid to explode with a good belly laugh. I’d name some of the local best but I fear I’d make them self-conscious. The National Theatre in London calls the first two rows the “rumble seats,” and they don’t sell these rows until the day of the show. They’ve learned over the years that older people buy their tickets early and young folks purchase them at the last minute. This way the best laughers are up front and the feeling will “rumble” back through the audience. Smart blokes, those Brits.

Bottom line: I’m simply glad that the Jacksonville area continues to provide such warm and large audiences for the arts. Much credit has been given to local actors and directors, but without an audience giggling and rumbling, we’d be performing to blank walls.

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