2005-01-01-Book Review: Audience and Playwright
The Audience & The Playwright: How to Get The
Most Out Of Live Theatre by Mayo Simon, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books,
New York: 2003, 215 pages, $24.95
Thanks to Mayo Simon’s
book, I now know that going to the theatre is a perfect first date.
Oh, I don’t mean
necessarily for you and the person that you’re sitting with in the
audience—although that can be an additional benefit. I mean between you and the playwright, who is trying first to
impress you and then to seduce you.
You’re both on your very
best behavior the first time you meet in the theatre. The playwright is very
considerate to you, from the start putting you in a privileged position.
Through various devices, the playwright tells you things about the
situation unfolding before you that even the characters down below on the stage
There is a price to pay
for these confidences so cunningly whispered into your ear. You begin to feel
superior, all-knowing, perhaps like an angel viewing mere mortals doing silly
human things. From your pinnacle,
you begin to take sides as the conflict below unfolds. This one is right, that one is wrong.
Then, suddenly, everything
changes. You had anticipated that
the story line would go in one direction, but the playwright takes it in another
way. Suddenly you are feeling
awkward, maybe even vulnerable. What
other tricks does this date with the wright stuff have up the sleeve?
Now that you are off
balance, the playwright has you watching the play raptly.
You are hanging on the playwright’s every word.
You are being taken down emotional pathways you never knew existed.
“Neil Simon is an expert
at using the proscenium frame to create comedy out of what you don’t see,”
this other Simon observed. “Take
a simple thing like an entrance. A door opens, someone appears.
From where? What’s out
there? You can’t see it but what
you imagine often produces a laugh, especially when you anticipate one thing and
something else happens.
“Example: The stage set
for Barefoot in the Park is an
apartment on the top floor of a New York walk-up. The humor comes from imagining
people climbing five flights of stairs. Each entrance is a witty variation on
exhaustion. Nobody is seen climbing. You only see people entering. You begin to
anticipate what people are going to look like when they appear. Each time the
buzzer rings and voices from the ground floor are heard, you laugh. They’re so
innocent down there, they don’t know what they’re in for.
But you’re smart, you know. Then,
just when you anticipate one more hilarious variation on exhaustion, the
playwright surprises you with someone who walks in showing no effects at all and
you laugh with delight at yourselves. So smart, but not as smart as Neil
Mayo Simon also explains
how important the first few lines of a play really are: “Every word, every
gesture, is designed to give you the special knowledge that puts you in your
privileged place and starts you in your role…In the first scene of Arthur
Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willie
Loman appears carrying two heavy sample cases which he sets down with an audible
expression of exhaustion. Who sees
this? Only you. He’s at the end of his rope. He’s also filled with crazed dreams of success. The split
between his illusions and reality is becoming unbearable. What’s he going to do?”