The Virtues of an Audience

I was a theatre major. Not writing, not history, none of the things that might have proved useful in my then-unthought-of career as a writer. I hoped to act (but unfortunately, was not particularly talented in that arena, and not conventionally adorable enough for my lack of talent to be overlooked) but what it turned out I was really good at was stage management. Stage management includes keeping track of all the people and things that go into a production: the schedules, the movement of actors on stage, very often the lighting and props and sound cues. In many of the cases where I was stage manager, it also meant keeping track of the director’s unspoken needs, the personal lives of performers, and how all the bits and pieces go from point A to point B (in one production of Moonchildren this included figuring out how to remove 7 dozen glass milk bottles from the set in a 60-second scene blackout).

It turns out that my secret superpower is cat-herding. I didn’t go into theatre professionally, but every single job I’ve had since I was graduated has called upon those skills. But acting–it turns out that the training I received wasn’t wasted after all. Put me in front of an audience–whether it’s docenting at the museum where I work, or teaching a bunch of kids how to throw a safe fake punch, or being a panelist at a convention–and some part of me blossoms.

This past weekend I was on a terrific virtual panel with Laura Anne Gilman and Joyce Chng, moderated by Gillian Polack. We were talking about worldbuilding and research and personal experience and being part of a diasporic culture and–it was great. You shoulda been there. But I realized anew that virtual panels, as wonderful as they are for bringing people together (Gillian is in Australia, Joyce in Singapore, Laura Anne in Seattle, and me in San Francisco–and the dear only knows where the various audience members were!) lack, for me, that one crucial thing: an audience.

This is not necessarily a bad thing: I was likely a titch more focussed on the conversation at hand; when there’s an audience I’m also reading it. I might be a little more focussed on a virtual panel. That’s a plus, I guess.

But what I lose is the exhilaration of the two-way flow between audience and speaker/performer/panelist. I don’t know how much of that is my training, how much is my innate show-offitude. When I’m in front of a live audience I’m always  scanning for what works and what doesn’t, for people who look perplexed, for questions that haven’t been asked yet. The moderator is, of course, doing the same thing, but… There’s nothing as satisfying as making a point and seeing it land–or watching the audience getting really involved in a conversation. And that’s where the virtual format lets you down. Even if the moderator leaves the audience cameras on, the effect is different. With an audience right there you don’t just get changes in expression; there’s the physical effect of–what? pheromones? the emotional weight of audience reaction? It’s a feedback loop, and it’s one of the best tools a performer–whether its an actor or a speaker–has. It’s why stage actors do not always prosper as film actors (and vice versa).

Don’t get me wrong: I will cheerfully show up for virtual panels and enjoy the hell out of them. A good conversation is a good conversation. But a good conversation before an audience… priceless.

One thought on “The Virtues of an Audience

  1. I am no actor, but I also prefer giving presentations before a live audience. I suspect being able to read an audience — whether I’m reading, speaking, or teaching Aikido or self defense — is the closest thing I have to a superpower. If I know what I’m talking about, I can shift in response to an audience.

    Zoom is wonderful for conversations with interesting friends, and certainly a panel can be that. I might prefer continuing to do book clubs and writer’s groups that way, except for the lack of options to have tasty snacks or dinner afterwards along with more casual conversation. And I like the ability to watch talks or panels by people I would not get to see otherwise.

    But I want to read for or speak to or teach people in real life. I need to know that they’re getting it and I can’t do that online.

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