Has ‘the preshow’ finally had its day? Actor’s seem to hate them, the audience often look uncomfortable, does anyone other than the director actual enjoy them?
— Morgan Philpott (@BrumBusker) February 4, 2020
The quickest way to upset a company of actors? Tell them they have to do a pre-show – involving lots of interaction, over-the-top enthusiasm, and far too much ‘shacting’ (shouty acting).
Yes, actors hate being told they have to do ‘more work’ than required. And who can blame them? A performer’s show usually starts when the audience are seated and the house lights go down – but add in the extra requirement of some pre-gurning, and the joyous thought of Equity minimum quickly loses it’s appeal.
I’ve witnessed many pre-show disasters – where actors look embarrassed, audience members hide under their seats, and front-of-house staff disappear into the closest toilets.
Most people go to the theatre to watch the action on stage in front of them, not to have it thrust into their faces by a performer who has no idea about personal space. However, I do understand that sometimes it can add to a show – and this depends on the type of piece.
In immersive theatre, promenade productions and even physical shows, some sort of pre-show can be expected. But that’s the point. It all comes down to expectations. If you’re going to see a traditional play at a normal playhouse, you don’t expect an actor to jump up and surprise you during your pre-wee.
However, in some immersive productions the sight of a performer going through some sort of physical pain before the show can be captivating (and helps you avoid speaking to your partner). When done well, a pre-show can heighten the experience. It allows the story to begin early and means the audience has a more personal relationship with the actors.
The secret is to not force the audience to get involved. If actors are doing their own thing, and invite the audience to watch, then that is fine. But when actors are made to slap, tickle and taunt members of the public, it can have the opposite effect – and make them wish they’d stayed at home and watched Love Island (and that’s saying something).
Historically of course, the pre-show was a different affair. Audience members would wander backstage and watch actors getting changed, and throw things at them as they prepared for the performance. Sometimes actors would even have a pre-show of their own with audience members in the nearest public house. Now I’m not saying any of these things should happen (they shouldn’t), but like everything in theatre, the pre-show has a long history.
So, in summary: the pre-show is an age-old tradition that can aid the experience for all involved. However, actors must be compensated for their time with free drinks and salty snacks after the show, and audience members must be given prior warning that they may actually get some genuine acting spit all over their lovely Zara frock.