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Matt Trueman: Audiences are like starlings – we react together

A murmuration of starlings over Brighton Pier. Photo: Philip Reeve/Shutterstock A murmuration of starlings over Brighton Pier. Photo: Philip Reeve/Shutterstock
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Have you ever seen a murmuration of starlings? If not, google it. Get it up on YouTube. It’s an extraordinary sight to behold.

Every night as dusk falls, before settling down to roost, starlings will fly off en masse. Entire flocks leave their perches and take to the skies – thousands of them flying in formation. We’re not sure why: warmth, communication, protection from predation? To human eyes, however, it looks completely aimless and playful – as if it is for fun.

Together, they make these vast, pointillist clouds; a mass of black dots against a soft twilight sky. They climb into the clouds and swoop down again, carving patterns out of the air. They seem to shape-shift, reorganising themselves in mid-air; shimmering, undulating, expanding, contracting. The flock moves as many and as one, multiple and singular at the same time, pulling together and apart.

Murmuring starlings remind me of audiences. Theatremakers sometimes talk as if audiences are magic. They suggest shared experiences have special powers, as if audiences are the answer. As if, in our age of screen-addled isolation, collective spectatorship is an end in itself.

Theatre brings us together. It makes our hearts beat in sync. It builds communities

Theatre brings us together. It makes our hearts beat in sync. It builds communities. Theatre happens, they say, in the air between actors and audience. No one fleshes out what that all means or why it matters. Not really.

A few years ago, I learned how birds fly in flocks. It’s a complex science. When they murmur, seemingly so completely in sync, starlings are in fact steering themselves independently: each to its own. There’s no leader, no one follows, but the flock falls into line because each bird reacts to those around it. They adjust their own course to stay next to their neighbours. If one flinches, those next to it follow suit; climb and the whole flock climbs with you. Every individual impulse ripples through the group and it grows as it goes.

Audiences are the same. We react off each other. Laughter is contagious, as is silence, fear and, I suspect, understanding. Watch with other people and, at some level, you watch through their eyes. The show they see, with their experiences, knowledge and personality, affects your reaction to the show you see.

The other day, in Bristol, I bumped into Dawn Walton, Eclipse’s artistic director. She’s touring Black Men Walking and, she said, it needs diverse audiences. All her shows do.

Read our feature on Eclipse Theatre and the making of Black men Walking

White crowds watch one way – most take black stories very seriously – black audiences, another. They get the humour straight away and, Walton reckons, their laughter gives others permission to laugh. It’s the same with men and women, adults and children, across classes and cultures. We learn how to watch by watching with others; as many and as one.

It’s not conscious, just sensors pinging off one another; reactions reacting to those around us. It’s not telepathy, but it’s not a million miles off. Like starlings, we murmur, flying together for fun and reorganising ourselves as we go.

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