How to Use the Actor-Audience Relationship Onstage

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As Ruth Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Ruby Dee’s nuanced intensity made the audience feel as though they were right there in the Younger’s crowded apartment. In “Death of a Salesman,” Philip Seymour Hoffman took on Willy Loman’s darkest moments of mercurial melancholy with a piercing gaze directed into the crowd of theater-goers. These types of actor-audience relationships in theater encourage engagement and create a sense of intimacy—but direct performer-audience interaction has its time and place. If you’re a stage actor, here’s everything you need to know about manipulating the audience relationship to your benefit.

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What is the relationship between performer and audience?

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The relationship between performer and audience is one of dynamic communication. Actors connect to the audience with their performance and everything that comes with it—their tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. This connection communicates emotions, ideas, artistic expression, and plot, drawing the audience into the world of the story. In return, the audience actively engages with actors by suspending their disbelief and remaining attuned to the performance.

What factors affect the actor-audience relationship?

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The actor-audience relationship is affected by setting, performance type, each unique performer, and the audience.

  • Setting: Smaller theaters, such as the 597-seat Hayes Theater, form more personal connections between performer and audience. At more than three times that size, the 1,933-seat Gershwin Theatre creates a more distant relationship. Beyond the size of a theater, audience proximity, acoustics, and the atmosphere created by set design can also impact the actor-audience relationship. The audience will be more likely to connect with an actor who is well-lit and whose voice they can clearly hear, since seeing and hearing someone creates a sense of intimacy.
  • Performance type: In naturalistic theater, actors connect with their audience simply through their characters’ emotions and experiences. In some dramatic theater, such as the Shakespearean canon, characters appeal directly to the audience in the form of asides. And in other forms of theatrical production, such as immersive theater, the performer actively seeks to integrate the audience into the performance.
  • Performer: The performer’s unique approach impacts their connection to the audience. When she portrayed Roxie Hart in the 1975 Broadway “Chicago” production, Gwen Verdon created a more subtle performer-audience relationship than Pamela Anderson did with her delightfully campy take on the role in the 2022 revival. Some performers strive for ongoing audience interaction, while others pretend they’re acting onstage alone—and many fall in between. 
  • Audience: Audience demographics also affect the performer-audience relationship. A drastically different performer-audience relationship was likely created when “The Vagina Monologues” was performed at an all-male prison than during the play’s more common incarnations at co-ed liberal arts colleges. Age, gender, political affiliation, and other factors can impact the ways that the audience engages with the performer.

How to use the relationship between actor and audience to enhance your performance

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To enhance your own audience-performer relationship:

Acknowledge the audience

If you’re breaking the fourth wall or otherwise directly interacting with the audience, acknowledging them through interactive techniques is an inherent part of the performance. But even in more traditional theatrical performances, making a personal (if unspoken) connection with the audience enhances the experience for everyone involved. 

“Before I start the show, I always look out at the audience, because I want to see who I’m playing to. I will look them in the eye,” says Broadway legend Patti LuPone. “I’m in a musical. It’s presentational theater. I deliver lines to people. I look in the corner of my eye and decide: Who am I gonna give the ‘Kiss off, Rodney!’ line to? I clock them, and that’s the person I give it to. And then, throughout the show, I’m looking at people—not to make them uncomfortable, but to include them in the story. You are telling a story to someone else. You can never lose sight of that.”

Read the room

Consider audience demographics and responsiveness as you perform. If you’re in a comedic performance and your humor simply isn’t hitting, you may want to switch up your approach. If possible, play around with your energy levels and the performance decisions you’ve been making so far.

Aim for authenticity

Let yourself be vulnerable as you inhabit your character; vulnerable authenticity allows you to better connect with the audience.

When and how to interact with the audience

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Direct audience interaction is a boon to some performances and a poor fit in others. These tips can help you know when and how to interact with the audience.

  • Craft realistic characters: The performer-audience relationship isn’t always about breaking the fourth wall and interacting directly with the audience. Often, it means performing a character imbued with complex personhood. Realistic, relatable characters with clear emotions and motivations draw the audience into the story.
  • Timing is everything: Plan out your moments of direct audience interaction appropriately. It would probably feel strange to break the fourth wall during a solemn death scene in a drama, but it’s just fine to do so when Peter Pan asks the audience to clap their hands to save Tinker Bell. Consider what’s happening in the performance itself as well as how the audience is responding when deciding how to time your moments of interaction.
  • Consider the audience: The relationship should feel reciprocal. If you choose to interact with the audience, be sure to pay attention to their reactions and respond accordingly. Think about how your performance impacts viewers and adapt your behavior accordingly. “As an immersive actor, you’re not just thinking about your scene,” says COLAB Theatre artistic director Bertie Watkins. “You’re thinking about how your character is affecting your audience at that point in time.”

When not to interact with the audience

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While interacting with the audience can increase the honesty and connectivity of a performance, it’s not always appropriate, such as when:

  • It doesn’t fit you as a performer: Audience interaction simply doesn’t jive with some actors. “Breaking the fourth wall doesn’t come naturally” to everyone, emphasizes Tamara Hickey, who appeared in the American Repertory Theater’s “Cabaret.” For those performers, it may be best to leave well enough alone. 
  • It doesn’t fit the performance: Unless you’re in a production that asks you to engage the audience directly, the actor-audience relationship should refer to your ability to draw the audience in with compelling dialogue and body language—otherwise, leave the fourth wall intact.
  • The audience doesn’t want it: Not every audience enjoys interacting with performers. Hickey says that actors should pay attention to the vibe and behave accordingly, avoiding audience members who don’t seem to want to develop a relationship.
  • It doesn’t fit the production: If you’re in an avant-garde performance art production, you’re probably free to interact away. But if you’re in a traditional play with an intact fourth wall, it’s more important to follow the director’s orders and stick to the script and your character than it is to manipulate audience interaction.