Audience's, it has been noted, are different every night. You can go out one night and find a warm and friendly reception and the next feel like you have just insulted everyone's mother. I have been on the receiving end of many a shifting audience; it is one of the hazards of storytelling (like stand up) that the relationship with the people in front of you is even more direct and important that in traditional drama - but I have not seen such a shift in audience and performance conditions as extreme as with last weeks community production of Much Ado About Nothing. (Which is almost certainly my last show of the year, as I'm planning a bumper crop of activity next year - news on this from future Robert. BIG ANNOUNCEMENTS ARE COMING VERY SOON! Sorry for the capitals, I'm a bit excited.)
Firstly, this was an open air production and that adds an additional weather factor to the equation of audience reaction. An audience in sun reacts very different from the drowned rats in the rain.
Secondly, even if we say so ourselves, it was a damned good production - so we're not dealing with a restive audience that wants their money back. The audience had a good reason to stay and enjoy and react.
First Performance: If this were a scientific test I would call the first night the control. The audience, a little slowly at first, reacted with laughter, nothing extreme; there were no highs and no lows. The weather was perfect, sunny but not too bright, warm but not too hot. We had a good solid baseline from which to pitch the show. We did notice that the callousness of the British public was in full force as they laughed good and loud at the suggestion that Benedick "Kill Claudio", but this was to be a feature of the run (except the last night) and people can be such bastards.
Second Performance: Weather wise the first and second nights were very similar. The audience was quicker off the mark, laughing with good force from the beginning. However, warning signs of what was to come were apparent. Being outdoors in a lovely private garden, the audience were able to bring picnics and sit in comfort from an hour or so before the show started, so there's a fair amount of milling about from the audience and the odd bit of bumping into people when waiting for a cue. Waiting to come on (in a Jeep no less) Don Pedro, Signor Benedick and I noticed that someone was taking a leak against the shrubbery in a corner of the garden. About ten foot away from the public toilets (unoccupied). Someone in the audience had obviously brought a well stocked liquid lunch to picnic on and was past the point of noticing minor things like an actual toilet facility. It was the shape of things to come.
The first half went well and I was rather looking forward to the second. As Claudio I don't get involved in the comedy of the second act, so I could focus on character and not worry about the timing of laughs. How wrong I was. The kindly weed waterer of the first half had come with a party of friends, all of whom were on a similar prescription of firewater. In their eyes the audience was very much part of the performance and their job was not just to laugh, at whichever line they liked (funny or not) but also to introduce to the script additional witticisms of their own.
My first encounter with this new situation came out of the blue in 4.1 - a scene where I denounce my bride at her wedding as a whore. I had a cock-up backstage and (by dint of a brainstorm) couldn't seem to get the Sam Browne of my costume on until, literally, the last second. So, I followed the priest on stage with heart pounding and somewhat unready (though it was kind of right for the emotional state of the character so I rode with it). My first line would get a laugh, this I knew. It's a laugh made of the unexpected bluntness of a man saying "No" at whether he wants to get married at his own wedding. But I didn't expect the uproarious laughter from the well oiled rump who were sitting directly in front of me. Or the muttering. Or the continued laughter, where none should live.
Fate then intervened to make things worse. Just as I was about to denounce my bride-to-be dishonest, my sword fell off. More laughter. I covered the fall with a quick pick up and brandished the sword throughout the scene with purpose. It was at this moment that I'm all rage and really show off the nasty side of Claudio's character. Our friendly spirit suppers started to boo and hiss. It was pantomime. I even had a comedy sword. Bugger.
At this point I thought we might be able to put a halt to this section of the audience. I've worked difficult crowds before - usually you can give a few pointed stares, give a bit more attack and speed up the text a bit so that they don't get a chance to jump in with retorts. After a while they tend to step into line. But this was open air, not indoors; they were throwing lines in over dialogue, not between it; and they were pissed, most audiences - even difficult ones - are not. When Hero (my ex-bride to be) fainted one voice piped up "I'm a nurse". And I knew we were doomed.
The next hour or so was hell. Pleas were made by the owners of the garden to quiet them, to no avail; the surrounding audience told them to shut up, nothing. The rest of the cast were having just as hard a time of it and were really upset that great scenes were being ruined. I became incredibly angry. It wasn't that they were ruining the show for me (they were, but it's all part of the job) but that they were ruining it for the audience. I was also angry with myself for letting it get to me so much. I became aware that everything I might do would now be seen as comic. When I re-entered with the sword there was a burst of "there's the comedy sword" laughter, and any move I made made the sword wobble in what was now an hilarious fashion. Control was lost - and I hated it. It was also at this juncture in the play that one of this merry band of revelers left to find a bush in the garden to do a shit.
The only good thing to come out of this sorry farce was due, not to us as performers, but to the shape of the garden. Luckily only half the audience had their evening ruined - the other half couldn't hear them because of the nature of the acoustic.
Third Performance: Hot, hot, hot. It was a matinee and the sun was shining. The audience was a bit subdued, they didn't have the energy for big laughs. Or, in some cases, consciousness. You expect a few people to nap through a show, but when it's a picnic you can't miss 'em, because they roll out a blanket and lie down. There were six people sprawled out at one point, but we didn't mind. Unlike the night before, they didn't do us any harm. And I'm sure they will claim they were "listening".
Final Performance: Sun, cloud, rain, RAIN, rain. The run up to the second show of the day was filled with prayers to the gods of rain. Rain had been expected in the afternoon and it had been positively tropical, so hopes were high that we might, just might get away with a light shower after the interval. We started in relative sunshine, soon obscured in cloud. The audience were quick off the mark, reacting well. The cloud got thicker. Then, thirty minutes to the interval, the first spots. It was gradual enough to give the audience time to slowly get waterproofs on. The ushers went round with ponchos during the song in 2,3 - which was perfect timing as it doesn't really matter to the play, it's just a random song. Transition from dry to wet was achieved without ruining the audience focus. By the end of the first half the rain was well underway, though not torrential. The interval was shortened, much to the general relief.
We lost the odd audience member, but it looked like more because many people headed for the trees at the edges of the space. In the second half it all went a bit King Lear. By the time we finished the wedding scene the rain was pouring down and the microphones giving us support were out of action. The note went round - bellow. I did 5,1 in the finest traditions of the Brian Blessed School of Acting - though afterward the rain lessened and the mics came back online. Still the audience sat there, still they listened, still they laughed.
I have to say, the rain became the second half. It had been odd playing some scenes in the afternoon in sunlight - as one cast member said: "It doesn't have that Gothic intensity". In the rain, those dark scenes came into their own. And by God, it's amazing how quick everyone is on cues when they really want to get back in the dry.
At the curtain call we applauded the audience for staying. They didn't laugh as much as they might have done in the dry, but they were focused on the action. And you can't ask for more from an audience. You really can't.
And as we walked off the stage, the bloody rain stopped.
And as we walked off the stage, the bloody rain stopped.