By seeing a lot of productions, I've come to realize that not every audience member understands what is expected of them when they go to see a play. They naively think they're coming to be entertained. If you want to have an experience, however, you have to be a willing participant. This is something I take very seriously, but I think that audience participation should be an olympic sport or, at the very least, should be critiqued as vigorously as the play, dialogue, acting, sets, costumes, and directing.
I'm not kidding. Ask any actor, director, or designer and they will describe to you how a performance "felt off" because the "audience wasn't with them." Or, the opposite, the performance felt "enhanced" or "energized" because "the audience was right there with them." If you consider any creative act: painting, acting, music, dance, etc, you think of the product itself, but we rarely address the audience's readiness to see said creative act.
When I taught English classes, we always spent a lot of time talking and practicing "reader readiness" (discussing themes, attitudes, and ideas we may have about the subject already or background information about the setting, culture, etc.) or "writer readiness" (freewriting, mapping, outlining, etc.), so why should it be any different for any other creative participation, including seeing live theater? How many people, at the very least, read the director's comments in the beginning of the program, or the author's introduction?
I think that audiences who are best "prepared" to see live theater, which is so different than going to a movie because that exchange is passive--the actors cannot respond to the feeling or attitude or response of each movie audience around the world--make themselves ready. They play a part. One of the many reasons I love to perform with the Thrillionaires is that we perform live theater with the audience. The audience cannot be passive, or we don't have a show. We get suggestions, information, even feelings and attitudes and turn them into a play or musical with the audience's help. If we were just to get up and do what we want or think of --which is an important element of what we do--it would still lack the vital ingredient of the audience. We've done shows where the audience is trying to figure out what we're doing (ie eating a meal while "watching" us at a company function and they have no idea who we are or what we do) and it's hard to draw the audience in. When you contrast it with shows we've done where the audience knows what we do and have decided ahead of time that they want to enjoy themselves and are willing to shout out things, the feeling at the show, and the quality of the creative product we create together is amazing. There's just no comparison. The difference is the audience readiness.
Here are some things I've learned by seeing a lot of live theater and having a director for a husband and actors for friends:
1. Know what the play is about before you see it. Knowing the basic story (especially if its Shakespeare) won't ruin it for you, but make you ready to know the characters and be drawn in by the story and dialogue.
2. Let yourself enjoy it. Don't wait and make them win you over, or you may miss enjoying something with your reservation and negatively affect the performance as a byproduct.
3. If something's funny, laugh. A lot of people don't want to draw attention to themselves, but spontaneous, real emotion is what live theater seeks to create.
4. Don't read your program during "a boring part." Read your program before the play starts, at the intermission, or after the play.
5. Try to connect with the actors on stage. Look at them, study their emotions. Try and put yourself in one of the character's shoes.
6. Make connections in your mind between what's going on on stage and your own life. Most timeless plays have universal themes (not all) and that's what makes them different and more rich in discussion than many (not all) movies.
7. Don't ever let the following sentences be THE FIRST THING YOU SAY to any actor or director after you see their production (they're so sensitive!): "How did you memorize all those lines?" "That was. . .fun!" or "Did you have a fun time doing the show?" (they will take that for code that you're searching for something positive to say to a production you didn't enjoy. . I know, I told you they were sensitive.)
8. Do let the following sentences be the FIRST THING YOU SAY to any actor or director after seeing their production: "That was great!" "Wonderful job!" or "I really enjoyed that production a lot!" (they will take that for code that you're glad you came and although it wasn't perfect, your overall sentiment was that you accept their creative offering.)
9. Go see a lot of live theater. Take your kids (8 and older). Talk about themes, characters, lighting, costumes, comedy, tragedy, life, acting, directing, staging, and all of that. Talk about good theater and bad theater. Experience it all. Seeing more theater will not only give you more confidence on how to be a good audience member (this new creative habit you have!), but it will give you more experiences (active, not passive) to enrich your life experience.
10. Bring money for treats during intermission.