Last Thursday, Colby College Department Chair of Theater and Dance Lynne Conner delivered the inaugural lecture for the Contemporary Issues in the Arts, a new series at Geneseo.
Conner's lecture, "We the Audience," explored the evolution of audience behavior and how it can impact the communication between artist and receiver. From the start, Conner held her own audience's attention. "Please," she began, "keep your cell phones on and ready."
While a quiet audience in today's society reflects respect, Conner has researched whether this has always been the case and to what extent silence actually correlates with interest. Through the use of paintings and sketches from a variety of time periods, she provided visual evidence.
Using paintings and sketches, Conner showed that from the times of ancient Greece through the end of the 19th century, audiences were expected to be active. Members of the audience of a Shakespearean play, for example, would make a full day of the event. It was perfectly acceptable for them to yell at the actors in applause or disapproval, and if they needed something repeated, they could demand it. Wealthy patrons could even pay to sit right on stage during the performance. In this way, the audience was able to become informed and fully understand the performance.
But the days of Shakespeare's audience are gone: "We've changed cognitively," Conner said. Audiences shouldn't be yelling and making noise during a performance. The idea isn't to influence the event, but for the audience to be part of the interpretation of it.
More recently, the arts have come to be viewed as a luxury for the upper classes. Museums, symphonies, theaters and the like are considered "serious," so audiences watch silently and from the dark.
Conner compared the need to interact with a performance to the interaction at a sports event. Through activities like checking statistics and watching recaps, there are dozens of ways in which fans can interact with a game. Conner lamented that such contact is typically unavailable for audiences of the arts.
Conner did say that times are changing, though. Audiences may still have to remain quiet during a show or a concert, but there are more ways for them become informed. The Internet has had the biggest hand in the shift; viewers of an event can find information online before a show, and exchange ideas afterward on chatrooms and forums.
Some arts programs are even encouraging audience interest, Conner said. The Pittsburgh Symphony, for example, invites audience members onstage before shows to talk with musicians about their experiences and the upcoming concert. Conner emphasized the importance of making connections between artists and their audience: It allows the audience to "deepen, strengthen and move forward their appreciation of the arts."