Theatre What can it do that film

can be compared to television and film production in many ways, as they are
both seen as ways of audio-visual performance. Jerzy Grotowski asked the
question ‘What is unique about it? What can it do that film and television
cannot?’ (1968, p. 19). Arguably, the only distinct separation between the two
is the actor/spectator relationship, as theatre presents you with a live
performance in which the actors are free to interact with the audience.
Grotowski states ‘It cannot exist without the actor-spectator relationship of
perceptual, direct, “live” communion’ (1968, p. 19). Due to this unique
characteristic exclusive to theatre, it is surprising that a large portion of
plays do not exploit this relationship to enhance the performance. After
viewing the productions of Cockfight and
Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle
and Cockfight, it was clear the use
of the actor/spectator relationship can vary and affect the performance in
different ways. Created by company ‘The Farm’, Cockfight was a physical performance exploring the relationship
between two men exploring themes of insecurity and masculinity, however there
is a fine line between the characters and the actors themselves creating an
experimental performance. They would often break the fourth wall by referencing
the fact there is an audience, using self-aware humour. Performed in the West
End, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty
Principle explored a romantic relationship between the unlikely couple of a
middle-aged woman and an old man through physical theatre techniques, but the
audience interaction was minimal in comparison- the actors not even having
direct eye contact with the spectators. This variation in interaction between
the actor and the spectator leaves me to ask the question as to why this aspect
of theatre is not experimented with more. In this essay I will explore the
concept of the actor/spectator relationship and its creative purpose, analysing
its potential, but also harm to theatre.


questioned the concepts of theatre often, but he has said that ‘… an infinite
variation of performer-audience relationships is possible.’ (1968, p. 20). The
actors can acknowledge that there is an audience and break the fourth wall, or
as such in Pantomime, use the audience as a way to progress the storytelling. However,
this convention of interacting with the audience is not necessary for a
performance to be effective, even though it is arguably the only unique aspect
of theatre. Both the plays I witnessed allowed me as an audience member to
create a strong emotional bond with the characters but in different ways. In Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle,
the actors have no explicit actor/spectator interaction, yet the authenticity of
the actors’ performances and stories meant I felt sympathetic towards their
dilemmas. Meanwhile, Cockfight acknowledged
the spectators as present with reference to specific members of the audience-
pointing people out. This type of relationship is best described by Grotowski-
‘The actors can play among the spectators directly contacting the audience and
giving them a passive role in the drama’ (1968, p.20). This breaking of the
fourth wall allowed the spectators to see that there are real people playing
these characters and therefore perhaps allowing us to bond with the performers
without becoming an active role in the play. The creative purpose of
acknowledging the audience was to create an emotional connection between each
other. This allowed me to view their problems as more authentic, as it felt
like the characters on stage were real people who had their own problems- like
anyone else in the audience.  For the
characters, their dilemma was their battle for male dominance and their
insecurity surrounding it, meanwhile the audience sees their struggle and due
to the personal interaction with the audience, we sympathise with them.  It is clear that the actor/spectator
relationship can vary between performances, yet the lack of a close
relationship does not mean that we cannot sympathise for the characters-  Grotowski himself acknowledging that any type
of engagement can be used to create theatre.


the absence of the actor/spectator relationship does not make a play less effective,
but this technique is usually left to a minimal in many contemporary
performances even with the recent rise in postdramatic theatre. Peter Brook argues
that it is to blame on the ‘West End crisis’ (1990, p.12). Theatre is not only
an art but it is also a business, and as such, you cannot risk any financial
damage. Many of the long running plays in the West End and other high-profile
theatre centres of the world have to stick to formulaic ways of creating
theatre as it is seen as safe. Brook argues that ‘No experimenting can take
place, and no real artistic risks are possible’ (1990, p.20). And as such the
performance of Heisenberg: The
Uncertainty Principle took no creative risk in even acknowledging the
relationship between the actor and audience. The only communication that occurred
was between the actors themselves. Written by Simon Stephens, he has become a
known name in the theatre world, and as such his name is used for the purpose
of selling a play- creative risk is not an option. Meanwhile, Cockfight can afford to take the
creative risk as the producers ‘The Farm’ are a largely independent company,
thus they can afford to experiment with the concepts of theatre itself. Cockfight has interplay between the two
characters and the two actors that play them, allowing an interesting concept
of there being a relationship between not only the actor and the spectator, but
the actor, spectator and the characters the actors are playing. They will
occasionally break character and acknowledge their real selves as actors
creating a close relationship with everyone, both fictional and real. The lack
of experimentation with actor/spectator relationships in West End theatre will
likely, however, not disappear any time soon as this creative risk is seen as
too financially unstable- which is perhaps why the actor/spectator relationship
is often similar between performances.


it may seem logical to some to experiment with the form of the actor/spectator
relationship, dilemmas arise with how this relationship affects the way the
audience watches a performance. The reason many are afraid to experiment with
this relationship is because unless done correctly, it may disengage the
audience to what they are watching. This is acknowledged by Gareth White,
stating ‘… a direct gaze can bring to consciousness more strongly… that the
body we are thus aware of is also that of an actor doing his job’ (2013, p. 183).
Whilst a performance may benefit from interaction between the actor and the
audience such as in Cockfight where
we develop a personal connection with the characters that way- the performers
risk making the audience aware that they are actors doing their job. Theatre is
a form of escapism, similar to that of film, but the gaze of an actor directly
onto the audience can remind them that whilst this is entertainment, it is also
their occupation. In this way, theatre can seem materialistic. It loses the
engagement of the audience member with the narrative and the performance, as
this world created by the actors is demolished and the space becomes a stage
again. Heisenberg: The Uncertainty
Principle never attempts to interact with the audience, largely for this
purpose, that it will break the illusion of the fictional world created on
stage. Whenever delivering lines, the two actors’ gazes are focused above the
audience, not acknowledging the existence of the audience, creating two separate
worlds. The main theme of the play is loneliness, and this is arguably why they
chose the creative decision to not interact with the spectators- to elicit
feelings of isolation. However, this still begs the question that if there is
no intimate actor-spectator relationship, is there really a purpose in this
theatre being created when film and television could create a similar effect?


uncommon in major theatrical performances now, there have been occasions when
the actor/spectator relationship has been very personal. Ariane Mnouckine, a
French stage director, had the actors themselves interact with the audience
before the show. ‘As the audience enters the performance area at the Théâtre du
Soleil they can watch the actors preparing themselves… thus establishing a
direct link between audience and performers’ (Richardson 2010, p.251). The
audience become aware that these people are actors as they interact with them
directly, bridging the distant gap between the audience and the spectator even
before the performance begins. This relationship is made closer by the audience
becoming part of the performance. ‘The audience were also integrated into the
action of the play so that they became the people of Paris in the year 1789,
watching the story of the Revolution unfold around them’ (Richardson 2010, p. 265).
Yet even though this goes against what White says about the direct gaze taking
away from the performance, you could argue that this makes the themes more
relatable, making the fictional characters’ problems more poignant. In Mnouchkine’s
play 1789, the audience is not just a
passive role in the Revolution, they become themselves members of the protest,
closing the gap between actor and spectator as they become actors to the other
audience members around them. This leaves us to ask the question if there is
more than one unique relationship in theatre? Does theatre also provide a
unique relationship through the relationships between the spectators
themselves? In Heisenberg: The
Uncertainty Principle, the audience have no communication with either the
actors or the other spectators, remaining passive to the performance. There can
be an underlying feeling of hierarchy as the spectators sit in different areas,
being more or less able to see the performance, but in Mnouckine’s plays there
is no hierarchy as they are all in the same place, including the actors. Cockfight tries to similarly include the
audience with the performance, but as they remain passive to the actors, there
is an underlying power balance between the two. However, even though
Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil could be considered a powerful way for the
actors and spectators to feel equal, elements such as surprise and the ability
of storytelling can be lost. With Heisenberg:
The Uncertainty Principle, due to the power balance being in the hands of
the actors over the spectators, it commands our attention to the singular
narrative of the two characters rather than just commanding a social message,
such as in 1789.


In summary, the
relationship between the actor and spectator is a complicated one that can be
manipulated to perform various roles within a performance. In Cockfight, by breaking the fourth wall
and acknowledging the audience, you form a closer bond with the actors,
enabling sympathy to occur- yet the realisation that the there is an actor
doing his job behind the character could disengage you from the performance.
Often due to a need for financial stability, shows are not too experimental
with their use of the actor/spectator relationship. This is demonstrated by Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle,
as the audience remain passive to the action, not being communicated with in
any way. However, the effect of this means it can demand the attention of the
spectators to the narrative, isolating them. But there is not just one
relationship in theatre- there are multiple. There is a unique relationship
between the individual spectators themselves in theatre, and even the fictional
relationship between the characters the actors play combined with the
spectators and themselves. Grotowski’s notion of theatre being a ‘live
communion’ (1968, p. 19), becomes clearest to us when we see theatre as not
just being unique for having the actor/spectator relationship, but for having a
complex relationship between all individuals in the space which cannot be
replicated by film.