The Green Room: What does the audience contribute to a performance?

Audience participation features prominently in performances by touring Shakespeare troupe the Handlebards.

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…


Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Adam Lovett, 45, has appeared in Oscar-winning films, on TV and in theatre at the RSC, National Theatre, and the West End

Josie Woo is in her 30s. She started acting as a teenager and has since worked extensively in theatre

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays and toured both national and internationally

Ros Clifford is 30. Currently a deputy stage manager, she has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years


Albert Our wages!

Vivian A show doesn’t exist without an audience. It’s as simple as that.

Albert Having an audience is the reason what we do is called ‘acting’. Otherwise it would just be called ‘being’. `Everything comes alive when you feel you’re being observed.

Adam Who wants to do stuff nobody watches?

Jon You’re all being admirably existential on this topic – I was thinking more of the ways audience behaviour can affect the show on stage, in performance.

Albert Acting without an audience is a little bit like sex for one. You can do it, but there is no real pleasure in it.

Vivian Imagine a comedy without the audience…

Albert Yes, being up there playing comedy with an audience that is unresponsive, too well fed or too critical is no fun.

Beryl The audience is often the ‘missing character’, especially in a comedy. They can dictate rhythm – that’s not always welcome but without them there’s no point.

Josie The energy of the audience can affect the show and individual performances massively, particularly in more intimate venues, whether we want it to or not.

Albert The audience can change the whole tone of the show. They can give you a boost; give you confidence; pull you down; or make you feel inadequate and dreadful. Quite often they can do all that without making a sound.

Josie It all goes hand-in-hand with live performance and a shared experience – some of the best moments are when the audience is with you and you can hear a pin drop.

Adam There is a contract between audiences and actors. We all say unequivocally that we need them, but if they start to chat or answer phones or rustle sweets, then I get furious.

Josie Yes, they can also be incredibly distracting, as anyone who’s familiar with school matinees will know.

Albert Quite often I don’t think we notice audience behaviour in those terms when we’re on stage. One certainly notices it when being an audience member, though.

Jon I don’t care about drinks being taken in, for example, because I’ve never been distracted by someone’s drink.

Albert In the 1980s at the Other Place in Stratford, we started the show with two audience members having quite a vocal disruption in the gallery. The lead actor just turned to them and said: “Shall we all just stop and watch you?” They soon shut up, and we had to reset and start the show again.

Adam Do you feel the show lifts if you’ve got a ‘good’ audience in? Or is that just something that happens in actors’ heads?

Jon And equally, do we often blame the audience for subpar performances? “Ooh, they’re sticky tonight.”

Ros A good audience definitely lifts a show. I did a farce at the beginning of this year and the nights we had a good audience had a completely different feel. I always make a comment about the audience in my show reports – the creatives are interested.

Adam I did a show in the West End a few years ago. At half time a sweet South Asian lady asked one of the ushers: “Excuse me, when does the Phantom come on?” She had a ticket for Phantom of the Opera but had come into our theatre by accident. Bless her, she went and watched the second half at Her Majesty’s. Now that’s a night at the theatre!

Albert I had an audience last week for a play that was absolutely quiet throughout – not a titter – and yet they loved it.

Vivian I saw Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in the West End the other week, and the audience was a treat. It didn’t seem like a ‘normal’ audience. There was a proper mix of ages, they were drinking, they were nipping out for the loo, they were late for the curtain up… but it didn’t interfere once with my enjoyment.

Albert It sounds like having to go and see the Rocky Horror Show on speed.

Vivian It really wasn’t. It was great. Very moving, very quiet, very beautiful. It added to the communal feel of the experience. They were all enjoying themselves immensely, but not in a hen-party way, in a real listening and feeling kind of way.

Albert I once went to see Dirty Dancing on a bank holiday Monday evening. I think the whole of Lakeside Thurrock had emptied en masse to fill the theatre. It was horrendous: wall-to-wall chat, alcohol, sweets, sex aids and very little focus on what was actually happening on the stage.

Jon We’re focusing a lot on London here. Are audiences different in different places?

Ros I think so. I’ve seen some shows fly in certain venues but totally flop in others. The last time I toured, the show received a very different response in its first venue in Wiltshire to the last in London.