How to Attend the Theatre: Q&A with Professor John Staniunas, Theatre
Q: What should a student expect when they go to the theatre?
A: One of the things I think is most important is that the theatre is a total experience. In a way, it’s unlike the movies, which is a very individual experience. The theatre is a community experience. You cannot do it without an audience. You are part of the audience; you are not just an individual. That can be intimidating, but at the same time, it can also be very inviting, because laughter is infectious and it feels like a collaboration between what’s going on on stage and what’s happening in the audience. The larger the audience, the stronger the experience.
You have live actors who are going through live things. Live emotions, live relationships. And that is something that you can feel. Watching a character unfold in front of you is an experience unlike anything else that you could ever have. Julia Roberts says that she didn’t really feel she was an actress until she finally did Broadway. And she was a big movie star. But until she could sustain a performance – it was a life-changing experience for her. Also with it being a total experience: there’s the setting, the costumes, the lighting, the sound, the makeup, the transformation of space into an imaginary place where things really happen.
Q: So how can students to be open to the community experience, rather than just going in with this expectation of just being entertained?
A: First, I think they have to be willing to say, “I don’t know anything about the theatre.” Well, the only way to know about anything is to experience it. And what you’re going to get is what you give. It doesn’t matter what you know or don’t know. The theatre is not a highbrow event, like an opera would be. It’s supposed to be an experience where what we’re trying to do is reflect your life. In other words, you’ll discover that what you’re seeing up on that stage reflects your life-- “That’s what my mother does. That’s what my uncle John does.” The theatre also can change lives, and it is about social change and cultural change, it’s about passions, and it’s about finding those things that speak to you in your own life. So that’s what we’re there to do.
Q: Which elements of a performance would you recommend that students pay attention to?
A: I think that the experience starts with getting the ticket. And then being in the lobby and looking around, reading the bios of the actors, and seeing the actor’s picture and their transformation on stage. Try to make that connection between who they are as a person and what the character is that they’re playing.
And then, walking into the theatre, being greeted by an usher who takes your ticket, and they give you a program, and then walking into the space and feeling the experience of – is the curtain down? Is the set open? What does the lighting look like? Who am I sitting next to? How many people are around me? Reading the program. Trying to figure out, what’s this show going to be about? Usually there’s going to be a display in the lobby of some kind of dramaturgical work, like about the playwright, about the play, about the actors, those kinds of things. So, taking in the whole experience rather than just going to your seat and waiting for the show to start. It starts when you get your ticket. Be alert the whole time about the entire experience. Then at intermission, walking around the lobby, listening to people and what they’re saying about the show, what they liked and what they didn’t like, what inspired them or didn’t inspire them, or just talking to people and listening in on conversations.
Q: Is there any specific theatre etiquette people should know about?
A: There is, and part of the concern in this day and age, of course, is technology. People are wedded to their phones, and it’s like their whole life is in their phone. The experience of the world is outside your phone. I think being a good audience member means giving yourself over to listening. That the experience is collective. It’s not about you; it’s about the whole audience, and you being a part of that experience. Applauding with other people. Laughing with other people. Crying with other people. Opening yourself up to your emotions. And your intellect as well. Plays have a lot to say to you as a thinker as well as a feeler. And I also think that yes, the theatre is there for entertainment, it is very much a part of what we do. But it’s also there for something beyond that, as well.
Reflecting on the Performance
Q: Is there any specific lingo or jargon that students should know?
A: Well, I think it’s important to know what kind of experience that they’re seeing. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Is it a tragedy? Is it serio-comic? It is a musical play? Is it a musical comedy? Is it an operetta? What’s the genre that they’re seeing? There are very specific issues and questions that come up with each genre. Let’s say it is your first experience with Shakespeare. What was the experience like? How much did you understand, and how much didn’t you understand? And why is that? Was it easy to listen to, was it hard to listen to? Was it easy to follow, was it hard to follow? Those kinds of things. I would recommend that students go online and learn about some of the conventions of the genre to understand it better.
So, first up is genre; the second thing, I think, would be “what are they attempting to do?” First, just by deciding to do this play, to put it up for an audience. Why did we choose to do it? There is always a reason that the play is being done, and it has to connect to the here and now. What’s currently happening in our lives that this play is reflexive of, even though it was written 100 years ago. Or 300 years ago. What’s is “current” that is inside this play that people can still find a connection to? Because we don’t do things in the theatre unless they are reflexive of the now. So find the now in the play.
Q: What kind of notes should students be taking? Should they be writing something down at all?
A: What I would say is at the beginning, before the lights go down, they should write a few notes about what they’re seeing and hearing. Is there a sound cue going? What kind of music is it? What kind of mood seems to be in the space? And then they should experience it. Don’t write anything down. Then at intermission, they write a few more things down. They walk around, they take a few notes about what people are talking about. And then, don’t think about writing anything down, just experience it. After the curtain comes down, there’s applause, and leaving the theatre, people are talking – go have a cup of coffee or a soda, and sit down with somebody you went to the play with. Try to go with someone, as opposed to going by yourself. Because you’ll have more of an experience if you go with someone. The theatre is to be shared.
Q: Do you have any other words of wisdom to prepare students for going to the theatre?
A: I would just say, “Give the theatre a try.” And don’t just come once. See more than one kind of show. And what we do here isn’t necessarily what you do when you go to New York and you want to see a Broadway musical. It’s a very different experience when the theatre can be a place of deep communication and be reflective of who we are. Even though, I mean, I think a lot of great Broadway shows do that as well. There, it’s a little more commercial because there’s a lot more money at stake. So we can take more risks here than they can on Broadway.