Shaftesbury Audiences Offered New Experience With Experimental Play

Shaftesbury Arts Centre is trying something different for their latest theatre production.

Their drama group is putting on two short comedies during one performance. Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ is a relatively well-known one-act play but staging ‘Audience’ by Michael Frayn has presented a challenge for its experienced director. “It’s quite experimental. Quite far out,” said Jerome Swan.

During ‘Audience’ theatregoers watch actors pretending to be a theatre audience watching a play. The cast sit in rows of seating on the stage. The performers cough, sneeze and shuffle along to their seats with whispered apologies of ‘sorry’ just like real audiences. You’ll watch them bursting into hearty, spontaneous laughter and you’ll find yourself laughing along too. It’s a bit like the TV programme ‘Gogglebox’, where viewers tune in to watch people watching television.

Jerome Swan

“It is based on the kind of experience we’ve all had, when you’ve been at a film or a play that is not that good,” explained Jerome. “Concentration slips a bit and the couple a few seats down from you are continuing the row that they were probably having before they came in to the theatre. A couple two seats back from you are canoodling more than they would be if it were an interesting film, which it isn’t. It is an exaggeration of the kind of stuff that goes on in any cinema or theatre when people aren’t really paying attention.”

The play starts from the moment the audience enters. “The actors take their seats on the stage at the same time that the audience sits down in the auditorium. So you’ll get this mirror of the same thing happening on the stage. It has a pleasantly surreal and discombobulating feel to it,” Jerome said.

“What is intriguing is this business where you reverse. You put actors on the stage who are behaving as if they are the audience and they are treating the audience as if they are the actors. So we’re going to have five minutes at the beginning where the actors ad-lib and that will slide smoothly into the play itself,” he said.

Andrea Jenkins plays Bobbi, an American tourist who has come to see the play with her new husband. “It’s going to be really odd, especially when they begin to realise that it looks as though we’re commenting on their behaviour,” said Andrea, anticipating the reaction of theatregoers to the play. “It’s meant to be a mirror image of what people do and how they behave when they’re at the theatre. They’re not sure what the play is going to be about. They’re worried that it’s too modern and bit conceptual,” Andrea said.

The central character is Keith, the play’s author. “He is a kind of commentator. He links the audience in the auditorium to what is happening on the stage,” said Jerome. “He is resigned to the fact that nobody is really watching his play very much.”

Alex Chase plays Keith. He sits at the side of the audience observing their reaction to the lines he has penned. “I think he’s a frustrated and a slightly uptight sort of character,” explained Alex, during a break from rehearsals. “He worries whether people are paying enough attention to the performance that they are supposed to be watching. So he just gets a little bit angry. There’s something slightly Fawlty-esque about him.”

‘Audience’ doesn’t have the traditional dialogue of most plays. The actors’ lines are often unconnected thoughts and observations. You’re eavesdropping on a series of private conversations as if you are watching an un-related group of people in a confined space. “It’s the interaction between them that really makes the comedy of it, I think,” said Jerome.

“With a lot of plays there’s a lot of dialogue, so you are just bouncing off the other person and it’s much easier,” said Alex. “But this is scattered lines, all over the place. It’s much harder to remember what you’re supposed to be saying next, because there’s a lot. I don’t just wait for someone else to finish speaking, I actually have to think, is it them?”

Andrea’s character is a middle-aged tourist who has travelled over from The States. “She is in her 50s, full of enthusiasm and very naïve, of course. I’m playing her with a slightly Southern States feel – Driving Miss Daisy – that kind of thing. I have a step-aunt who comes from Georgia, so I’ve heard that accent quite a lot. I’m going to mimic her,” Andrea said.

Jerome was keen to praise the set building team. On the face of it, the set appears a simple and straightforward design – a few rows of theatre seats have been placed on the stage. In reality that has taken a great deal of planning and work.

“It’s been incredibly difficult. It’s a kind of idea that, when you read it on the page, you think it will be really easy,” said Jerome. “You just take out three rows and stick them on the stage. Then you put that to a set builder and they say ‘you want to do what?’ Then you suddenly realise you’ve actually embarked on something which is technically really complicated. The set builder is heroic. There is an enormous amount of weight on the stage, all of the seating and the podium that you have to put it on. We also had to move it. I don’t know how many wheels we have. It must be running into two figures,” Jerome explained.

The director wanted to put on a lighter production. At first Jerome was planning only to present ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ but since that’s one hour-long, he added the 50-minute long ‘Audience’ so theatregoers get a proper night out. “You get stuck if you do something that’s shorter than a two-hour slot because if you don’t charge a full price, what do you do with it?” asked Jerome.

Jerome promises that this ‘experimental’ play won’t be heavy or hard to follow.  “This isn’t high culture. You are not going to discover any secrets of life with these things. You’re just going to have a really good evening out and it’ll be a laugh,” Jerome said.

Jerome thinks that Shaftesbury’s Arts Centre’s production of ‘Audience’ is a first. The writer, Frayn, expanded the piece into a two-act show and that didn’t work. Jerome hasn’t found any company presenting this one act version anywhere else before.

“We are all taking a chance with it but the people in it love doing it. They’ve had a great time putting it together so that’s really encouraging. But we are out in unknown territory with this,” he added.

Having seen the show, Jerome’s out-of-the-box idea should meet approval and should be a box office success. ‘Audience’ and ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ start their run at 7.30pm on Tues 9th April and the performance continues until the Saturday 13th April. You can buy tickets from Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Bell Street or online from their website.