Student blog: an audience of eyes

Image reproduced with the kind permission of Descending reviews.

With the number of free tickets offered at Tisch, my friends and I make sure to take advantage of every opportunity. On a brisk October night, with empty bellies and aching limbs after a full day of acting class, my best friend Camille and I rushed to the Fault Line Theater to see Paradise Factory’s limited series of “Hindsight.” . The setup was intriguing – the show’s lead actress was the playwright herself, our seats were front and center, and best of all, we were given little black boxes at the door to open during the representation. We couldn’t help but wonder what was in the boxes. However, after careful examination (i.e. shaking them) we deduced that there must be some sort of snack inside…fruit roll-ups maybe…or maybe we were just hungry.

As the curtain rose, we watched with satisfaction as the story unfolded. However, there seemed to be some commotion coming from my left. A frail elderly woman with milky eyes and a pale blue blouse sat next to me, smiling. I could see her smiling. She was not wearing a mask.

Ushers on both sides of the audience began motioning for the woman to put on her mask, surround her, distract the performers, and lead her away from the theatrical experience. The woman continued to smile, playing Peek-A-Boo with her mask on – taunting them.

Suddenly, the house lights went on, blinding the audience. The performers walked out gracefully and the production team burst onto the stage. It was war.

After twenty excruciating minutes of back and forth between the lady and the stage manager, the audience was dismissed and promised a full refund. And to make matters worse, when we opened the boxes on our way home, they weren’t fruit roll-ups after all.

Although the performance was canceled, our conversations blossomed on the way home. The experience was a spectacle in itself, bleeding into our imaginations and forcing us to reflect. We started discussing the impact masks have on an audience in the first place. Does a theater mask mandate change the way audiences perceive a performance? Is it also different for performers? It must be weird performing in front of a masked audience; an audience of eyes.

The masks, in a way, strip the spectators of their identity, reinforcing their role as spectators rather than spectators. Behind the mask, we forget that the performers can see us as much as we can see them. Face coverings give us false anonymity, masking our reactions and forcing us to view the room with a more critical lens.

“There is a big difference between a spectator and a spectator” underlined Camille, “A spectator stands back and looks at what he sees, with a critical eye, as if he were examining a tennis match or a match football. A spectator is definitely apart from the spectacle.”

On the other hand, a spectator is more involved. They are a role in the production, a partner, and their reactions act as an asset for the performers. “The performers can’t see our faces, so we assume they have less information about what we’re thinking,” she continued, “Wearing a mask is like stepping back to look and enjoy working remotely, as opposed to huddled in seats with our friends. It feels like watching a movie.” Interestingly enough, wearing a mask can provide a slightly different perspective to the performance.

The conversation left me wondering about pre-covid masks. I came across “Sleep No More”, an immersive theatrical production based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Before the show begins, each audience member is given a stylish bird-shaped mask to wear for the duration of the show. This is to help separate the performers from the audience members, as well as to strip the viewers of their identity to devote their full attention to the piece. It is said that if even a member of the public takes off their mask, the whole experience will be disrupted. This is a story that I recognize!

So while it’s tempting to drop your mask in the theater, keep in mind that it actually has non-covid benefits! Not only will you keep yourself and others safe, but you’ll help shape the overall direction of the production, as well as alter your own experience.

Stay safe, mask up and enjoy the show!