To Stand Or Not To Stand?

As a Director one of the hardest things to ever know is how an audience is going to react. Locked up in a rehearsal room, you get to know the text better than anybody else, often to a point where you are totally unsure if anything is engaging, funny or even makes sense. You have to have faith in the material to follow through and support the actors, believing that the audience will find the nuances you have collectively been working to promote.

I’ve learnt from experience that there are in the main two different types of audiences; those who are with you from the very beginning and laugh at the end of every line, and those who are concentrating so hard they sometimes forget to tell their faces that they are enjoying themselves. Of course there is also the audience who is not enjoying themselves, but they are usually much easier to spot.

London ILYBI have recently just opened the professional London revival of Salzman and Cunningham’s musical comedy I Love You Because on the London fringe (perhaps perfectly timed for Valentines day you might say), and audience reaction is key to the feel of the whole piece. For those unfamiliar with the show, it is billed as a ‘modern day love story’ very loosely based on Pride and Prejudice and follows two couples who come to love each other not despite of their differences, but because of them. The book and lyrics appeal to different comic tastes – from witty lines that require attention from an audience to more visual and obvious humour, providing something for everyone.

After four weeks of rehearsal, we waited with baited breath to judge the audience reaction on opening night and were quite surprised at the reaction. Parts we had found funny ourselves in rehearsal were not raising a titter, yet elements we had almost forgotten about were being met with over the top reactions.

There are many factors which lead to differing audience reactions, but one that always interests me is the division between American and British audiences. Having worked on both sides of the pond, I am used to experiencing different levels of reaction, in many cases for the same show. It’s a well-known stereotype that British people are, on the whole, much more reserved when it comes to both compliments and complaints. This point was hammered home recently at the end of American Psycho the Musical which received a good level of applause at the end, but inspired an American lady to loudly proclaim that the show was “truly awful” which reverberated around the tiny Almeida auditorium seconds after the cast had finished their calls – a reaction which shocked the Brits around her, even those who had thought the same.

Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Here's Patti LuPone as Rose! (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Here she is, boys!
Here she is, world!
Here’s Patti LuPone as Rose!
(Photo: Sara Krulwich)

My first realization of this difference was back in the summer of 2008. Seeing Laurents’ revival of Gypsy a week after Patti LuPone had won the Tony, I was in awe that she received a standing ovation after her first (offstage) line was uttered, literally stopping the show within the first few minutes. I couldn’t get over the reaction, and as deserving as it was, I couldn’t help imagine what a London audience would make of it.

Standing ovations were once only reserved for the mightiest of occasions, but sadly modern musical theatre has factored a forced ovation into their calls, usually in the form of an awkward encore, designed to get the audience on its feet and dancing. I’m usually the miserable guy sat down in the middle of the Stalls, resisting as well I might to applaud on my feet – especially when the performance has been less than impressive. After being forced to my feet in awe at Ms LuPone’s performance back at the St James in 2008, I now have a comfortable benchmark in which to set myself – I will not get to my feet for just anyone.

Whilst these ovations seem to be a forced opportunity to end the evening on a high, mainly to encourage sickening marketing slogans such as ‘every night a standing ovation’ across the marquee regardless of whether the audience were dragged to their feet out of sheer necessity, they have led to British audiences loosing up more at the theatre. Our European brothers and sisters don’t seem to share this sense of stoicism – any trip to the Italian opera will show how appreciative they are of their art – so why do London audiences seem to be the most reserved in the world?

Of course we all have examples of exceptional audience reactions, and when I try to think of those in London which I remember being more than average, only British texts stick in my head. The recent production of Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry enjoyed an electric audience reaction from the pre-set. Every line, movement and reaction garnered a laugh, to the point of actually being excessive. Other British texts such as the hilarious One Man, Two Guvnors also spring to mind, alongside the obvious examples of Coward and Ayckbourn – prescription comedies that have the audience laughing at the sense of familiarity rather than anything else.

Buttons: Another Cinderella Story – Rosemary Branch Theatre, London

Buttons: Another Cinderella Story – Rosemary Branch Theatre, London

Over Christmas I was reminded of the glorious British tradition that is a trip to the pantomime, and couldn’t believe the reaction from an extremely mixed and diverse audience. As someone who is at the theatre around three times a week, no reaction comes close to that of an audience engaging with a panto – no matter how ridiculous it happens to be. Of course this is a form that actively thrives off audience reactions, and one that British audiences are extremely comfortable with. I always enjoy seeing the reaction of American friends who seem completely baffled by the whole concept, and many can’t believe their eyes or ears.

Pantomime shows that British audiences certainly DO know how and when to react, and ARE able to let themselves go. But what is the common factor and key to success? As audiences, do we innately react better to pieces that are from our own culture and tradition?

As a Director I enjoy working on American texts, for no other reason than I love the ‘golden age’ of Broadway, and enjoy reinventing these shows on the London fringe in a challenging and different environment to which they were originally performed. Some texts are so inherently American a British audience fails to have the immediate connection to the piece, and because of this, you have to work harder to find the humour and get the audience on board from the start. Recent productions of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and A Chorus Line have taught me that it’s not just moments in the text that are ‘lost in translation’ but key ideas and references that seem to have a harder time sitting with the audience. I have worked on productions of Grease, Charlie Brown and West Side Story in both the UK and USA and have noted direct differences between how an audience feels both throughout the piece and also at the end.

These differences are perhaps most easily judged by considering musicals that have ‘flopped’ on different sides of the Atlantic. There are countless examples of shows being hits in London and failing on Broadway and visa versa, as The Drowsy Chaperone and Spring Awakening both recently prove. Looking at the number of transfers between New York and London, it is extremely difficult to judge exactly what audiences will pick up elsewhere, and what will simply not have the same effect. It is this impalpable difference that fascinates and frustrates me, and one I encounter on a regular basis.

Oscar Wilde famously described America and Britain as being two nations separated by one common language, and theatre audiences consistently show that we are as different as we are similar. Whilst I certainly hope British audiences will find their own path and humour in I Love You Because, perhaps the message from the show that we can accept and learn to love these differences is the most apt.

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