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Guest Blog: Simultaneous Shakespeare, The Final Push

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Student Nicola Pollard is directing an ambitious project that will see her stage two productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the same time in two different locations - Exeter and Cambridge - on 26 November.

It’s the final push now. We’ve had the dress run, the set is almost finished and we’re going on a major publicity drive. I can feel the various elements coming together, but I won’t know it’s all complete until I see audiences on Saturday. A few of my cast and I were interviewed for the Exeter University radio station today, Xpression FM, and the presenter asked us what our ideal situation for Saturday evening would be. We all said a warm, receptive audience who enjoy the show.

It is amazing what difference an audience has on a performance. I was assistant director for a tour show in spring of this year, during which we played to a variety of audiences. The ‘best’ ones weren’t necessarily the biggest, but they were welcoming and open to being amused. Size does help, but I’d rather play to six enthusiastic (well maybe not six – 16) audience members than 30 stony-faces.

It can be amusing when audiences aren’t very receptive and the actors get cross. If the actors are putting in the same amount of energy and effort as normal and the response is cold then frustration is understandable. (What is also quite funny is when one single audience member is clearly having a whale of a time and their laughter is like a soundtrack to the production.) Audience focus also helps enormously, especially if they are close to the stage. The more they shift, yawn and rustle, the harder it is for the actors to concentrate onstage as they know they don’t have the audience’s attention. (This is also why children can be an incredibly difficult audience. Don’t expect a Shakespeare for Children from me anytime soon.)

However, it is likely that Shakespeare’s original audiences weren’t as attentive as we expect today. In addition to the fruit and nut sellers, and other wares being peddled, it is thought that some lords may have arrived at the theatre fashionably late in order to make an entrance to their gallery. After which they may have asked actors, in mid-flow, for an overview of what they had missed. It is also believed that groundlings were more than capable of letting their opinions known – through the medium of vegetables hurtled towards the stage. Fortunately, we’re now more likely to find things being thrown off the stage into the audience than the other way round. (Although quite unfortunate if you’re not paying attention. Yes that may be a hint.)

I do hope that our audiences on Saturday are drawn into the play. After a hilarious speed run on Monday, my cast and I did some work on interacting with the audience. We found so many more opportunities for direct address than we previously thought, opportunities that strengthened the comic potential. There is a danger that some moments the actors find funny don’t appeal to an audience, because they don’t know the actor well or weren’t in the rehearsal where so-and-so did such-and-such a thing. Conversely, there may also be moments that the actors forget are funny, because we have heard them so much. I hope this happens, much more so than the former. My cast for Cymbeline found so many comic moments in the performance of the final scene, so I dread to think what my cast are going to find on Saturday!


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