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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

This page last modified: November 16, 2007


The Audience and the Theatre

Resource:  Wilson/Goldfarb, Chapter 1

Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:

characteristics of audiences

types of audiences

how and in what ways audiences respond to theatre



The audience is most important -- a group of individuals gathered together at a certain time and place for no purpose other than to see the performance (though some may be doing other things: placing bets, writing reviews, wasting time, etc.), that is aware of itself as a group (this definition comes from Cameron/Gillsepie -- and most of the rest of the ideas on this page also belong to them).

Audience for theatre performance has artistic self-awareness.

Audience for sports (spectators) -- competition -- outcome not pre-determined (as it is with most theatre--though some plays have varied outcomes (Night of January 16  and The Mystery of Edwin Drood).

The audience gives its "permission" to the art.

A social phenomenon --
"conventions" -- "agreements" about what audiences will accept -- how "story" will be told.
Different permissions given at different times.
A "contract" to pretend to see what is not seen--different locales, etc.

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Audiences differ in their:

Audiences respond to theatre:

  • our preparation and the conditions or the theatre (physical, social, cultural) help determine our response.
  • Audiences can respond to theatre with
  • imagination stirred
  • making familiar revelations through compressed, focused, magical life
  • making exotic a revelation
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    How does theatre appeal to audiences?

    1. Sensory stimulation (light and sound):


    2. Human values -- story and character inherent in the text of any play.

    a. Stories are compelling -- a framework for other values. Response comes from suspense, surprise, revelations, unfolding of events, reversals (peripitea), discoveries.   Audience can anticipate if prepared for.

    b. Character -- the representation of a human being in a theatrical performance (or in the literary work) -- as much as the audience needs to know....

    We identify -- that character is like me.
    Subconscious references (like nightmares).
    Association -- historical people, people from our pasts.

    3. Artistic excellence. What potentials are fulfilled in production?

    4. Intellectual value. The idea, or theme ("the me") usually takes care of itself, if presented well -- becomes more acute over time.

    Performance values must succeed to communicate idea.

    All four of these work together... reading a play is only part of its potential.

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    Audience sees:

    A danger:

    The "Affective fallacy" -- responding to our own perceptions only (For instance, someone undergoing a divorce / separation might react to Kramer versus Kramer  in a different way from someone else; similarly, one who has had the experience of suicide in their lives might react quite differently to Ordinary People  than someone else).

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    Realistic vs. non-realistic elements Take a look at Wilson's chart...

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    Important terms:




    affective fallacy


    willing suspension of disbelief

    aesthetic distance


    fourth wall



    Click here for a short study quiz on this lesson...

    Next Section: The PLAYWRIGHT



    This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2007.

    This page last modified: November 16, 2007