How To Grab An Audience

Writer Mark Ravenhill wonders: ‘There is very little that playwrights, film directors, fiction editors, and journalists agree on. But on one subject there does seem to be an almost universal consensus, and that is that you – the reader, the listener – are bored, most of the time. Look at any contemporary guide to making art, or working in the media, and the assumption is that an audience’s natural state is one of restless ennui. Our job as writers is to provide a sort of espresso shot. Grab them quickly, grab them hard – otherwise they will change channels or walk away.’

And so we throw spectacle at you, make sure there are three laughs on every page, grip you with the power of ‘what happens next?’, do what we can to shock you with graphic sex and violence. From the worthiest of new-writing theatres to the brashest of musicals, from the Booker shortlist to the BBC newsroom, the assumption is the same – that you out there are very easily distracted.

Maybe we should blame the invention of the TV remote control: people often do. At some point around 30 years ago, it became possible to hop aimlessly between channels. Programme-makers became convinced that they had to make a pitch for their show in its opening few seconds, and then keep on pitching just to keep the audience on side. But why has this requirement to grab, grip, deliver a punch (the language is nearly always that of physical violence) infected nearly every other medium? After all, you’ve already chosen to buy that novel, or theatre ticket; the chances are you’re going to stick at it even if the story moves slowly, if it rambles or pauses to digress. But more and more, it seems, we treat every audience as though they carry a phantom remote control. We are terrified of losing them.

Polish theatre director Krystian Lupa isn’t scared of his audience. He never seems to consider that we might all be suffering from some kind of attention deficit disorder. And the chances are you haven’t even heard of Lupa. His work isn’t much known in our rather inward-looking island, though he is big news in the rest of Europe. I knew nothing about him myself until recently, when I was invited to Wroclaw in Poland to see him receive the Europe Theatre prize, an influential award given to those considered to be major figures in contemporary theatre.

I arrived in Poland a day too late to see Factory 2, Lupa’s eight-hour homage to Andy Warhol. But, before the prize ceremony, I was fortunate enough to see his Marilyn, a three-hour work-in-progress that will eventually form part of a nine-hour exploration of ‘personality’. It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be: I suppose I was expecting some kind of spectacle – maybe abstract, maybe symbolic – but nevertheless, a burst of theatrical pyrotechnics. In fact, what is remarkable about Lupa’s work is its simplicity, its slowness, its longeurs.

On a realistic-looking reconstruction of a movie backlot, Lupa showed a series of long dialogues between Marilyn Monroe and her acting coach, a photographer and a studio doorman, as Monroe prepares (as she was reportedly doing shortly before her death) for a New York theatre adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. One thing struck me very soon into the show: this was the first time I had seen Monroe as a truly dignified person, entirely apart from the screen persona she created. Here was a woman whom you believed might seduce Arthur Miller with her mind, as well as her body.

Apart from an arresting final few minutes, featuring video and the sudden appearance of a crowd, the three-hour performance was slow and talky. At first, I found it hard to watch. Here were actors who didn’t seem to care whether I was engaged or not. But Lupa’s work is about the thought and the emotion taking place right at that moment, and his actors aren’t afraid to take their time; he is not interested in rushing us forward, or building suspense. So yes, I was initially frustrated. But then I suddenly became hugely excited: for almost the first time in my theatre-going experience, I was truly being treated as an adult, someone who didn’t need to be constantly diverted, who had chosen to be here and was being given space for my own responses. And it seemed OK to sometimes engage fully with the performance, and sometimes drift off into my own thoughts. Here was theatre that didn’t stop to worry that I might get bored. Sometimes it was boring: it was really, really boring. But it was never dull – and it was all the better for it.

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