Shakespeare and Chekhov in Production and Reception: Theatrical Events and Their Audiences

Shakespeare and Chekhov in Production and Reception: Theatrical Events and Their Audiences

by John Tulloch


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With a focus on the canonical institutions of Shakespeare and Chekhov, John Tulloch brings together for the first time new concepts of "the theatrical event" with live audience analysis. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780877459262
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 03/15/2005
Series: Studies in Theatre History and Culture
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Tulloch is research professor in sociology and communications at Brunel University, England. Previously he directed the Centre for Cultural Research into Risk at Charles University, New South Wales, and was professor of media communication at Cardiff University, Wales. He has published extensively in film, television, and theatre research.

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Shakespeare and Chekhov in Production and Reception THEATRICAL EVENTS AND THEIR AUDIENCES
By John Tulloch
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2005 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-926-2


Two casual observations of theatre audiences help introduce the project for this book. They are both of teenagers watching performances of Shakespeare. One was in 1999 at the Barbican Theatre, London, for a performance of The Tempest. The other was in 2001 at the Q Theatre, Penrith, New South Wales, where a production of Much Ado about Nothing was running.

The Barbican is a large theatre space and, until recently, the London home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. As such, it could afford quite lavish productions and spectacular effects, and the Barbican's The Tempest certainly achieved these. The production had been well reviewed, and seats were hard to come by. I only managed to get a seat at the very edge of the gods for the very last matinee performance.

There were a number of school parties present. In fact, I was surrounded by students in the very back row, high up and far from the stage. Six schoolgirls who had even more extreme seats than I did were clearly bored. Throughout the first half they chatted to each other, staring challengingly at me when I occasionally got distracted and looked across at them. By the opening of the second half, one was reading a romance novel and the others had resorted to their Walkmans and were waving their arms to the sound of their own music, which could just be heard by other close-by audience members.

Academics like myself who have worked for a long time in media and cultural studies have got used to celebrating this kind of incident as resistant reading. These teenage girls were alienated from the entire high-cultural event. Sitting uncomfortably, brought here by their teachers to see valued theatre that was playing their A-level (school-leaving certificate) set text, they brought with them into the theatre space (and also into my leisure space) their own popular cultural performance. Their body language indicated at different times a mixture of distraction (from the play but not from their music), of provocation, and of "doing what they shouldn't" as they outstared my gaze at them. This composite of everyday popular music and performative body language became an alternative entertainment event that was sometimes hard to ignore.

In accord with feminist cultural theory (e.g., McRobbie 1984), it would be both plausible and appropriate to consider the ways that these girls were transforming this play of "patriarchal colonization" (Bennett 1996, 125), The Tempest, into their own everyday pleasures, especially their enjoyment in opposing the dominant male gaze of a "legitimate" theatregoer. This kind of resistant reading analysis has been enormously important in cultural studies and obviously could be taken much further in this case, for example, in terms of the girls' gender, ethnicities (three black, one Asian, two white), class, cultural capital, and habitus. Cultural studies writers over the years have made great play between the paralleling of school structures and broader societal structures that were often highlighted by way of these resistant readings of media texts.

However, I agree with Pertti Alasuutari, who argues in Rethinking the Media Audience that the theory of resistant reading too often entraps us in false or inadequate dichotomies:

It is important to notice that the celebration of the active viewer ... [and] resistance through mass culture is still fixed to the idea that the consumption of (mass) culture has to be legitimated. Reading romances or watching a television serial is granted a legitimation by showing that it is somehow valuable and useful.... While the older highbrow/lowbrow distinction was totally based on criteria set by the cultural product, the new conception sets criteria according to the way a product is consumed. It is a move away from the sphere of aesthetics to the political, or one could say that it politicizes the aesthetics of everyday life, but it is nevertheless a reproduction of the hierarchical notion of culture. (1999, 11)

This is nicely put because it captures precisely the way in which not so much as "legitimate" theatregoer but rather as researcher/observer I was perceiving the six girls at the Barbican: in terms of a political legitimation of their performance in the continuing context of a high/popular culture dichotomy. To put it bluntly, it was all too easy for me at that moment to reach for the rather simplistic response of "Well, the Barbican brings this on itself via the high cultural space, architecture, and class-ostension (and ostentation) of its performance."

But what if we want to get beyond that dichotomy of high/popular culture altogether? Alasuutari, in moving toward his third-generation notion of audience analysis, insists that "it is no way necessary to think that pleasure must be instrumentalised" (1999, 11). To assume that teenagers' pleasures at the theatre are likely to lie in a politics of resistance (since surely they are not going to enjoy their teacher-prescribed, high-cultural text) is to devalue the pleasures that many young people (alongside much older people like myself) can, in fact, get at a Shakespearean theatrical event.

This observation introduces my second theatre audience anecdote. In February 2001 I was sitting in the back row of a semicircle of seats clustering around the small thrust stage of the Q Theatre in Penrith, New South Wales. Again it was a matinee performance, and again I was alongside five or six schoolgirls. On this occasion the entire theatre audience was composed of school parties, and the young people were sitting very close (even when in the back row) to the actors playing Much Ado about Nothing onstage.

This time, though, the girls were not bored, and at the end of the performance the entire audience of young people erupted in pleasure (which is not to say they weren't laughing, humming, dancing to the music, and chuckling to each other about individual performers during the show). At the end, the girls next to me were on their feet, clapping, whistling, and cheering. And the same thing happened at that evening's performance with an audience mainly of adults but that again had some school students, dressed now as stylish late teens going out for the evening, not in their school uniforms.

My two anecdotes introduce my project for this book, which is (1) to offer a cultural studies approach to the relations of theatre history, production, and audience within the emerging concept of the theatrical event; (2) to provide a first application of third-generation audience theory and methodology from media/cultural studies to two of Western theatre's major canonical institutions; (3) to examine the continuing history of Chekhov and Shakespeare as a series of stories currently and locally told in the context of a blurring of academic genres; and (4) to emphasize a poststructuralist focus on local tales from the field even while talking about theatre as a globalized leisure industry within risk and postmodernity. Because these aims need examination of some key concepts and problems, I will enlarge on each in turn.

The Theatrical Event

The concept of theatrical event is a relatively new one in theatre and cultural studies. In part, it is centered in current research and publication by a multidisciplinary team working within the International Federation for Theatre Research (of which both Willmar Sauter and Peter Eversmann, mentioned below, are members). But it has also arisen in the work of theatre audience theorist Susan Bennett. Because of the particular emphasis of this book on theatre audiences, I will begin with her analysis of the theatrical event.

In Theatre Audiences Bennett provides a processual approach to cultural studies that combines an analysis of performance with audience: "Theatre as a cultural commodity is probably best understood as a result of its conditions of production and reception ... and a key area for further research is the relationship between the two for specific cultural environments, for specific types of theatre" (1997, 106). Although Bennett doesn't directly focus on the theatrical event, she does discuss the relationship between theatrical event and the local, situated context. Speaking about differences between regional and urban theatres, Bennett argues that "these different theatres create different kinds of events for the audience and, in their diversity, maintain occasion and place as signals for art which are heterogeneous and flexible"(1997, 102, 104). Bennett's reference to "occasion and place as signals for art"(1997, 99) is both global and local in conceptual intent and is derived from one of cultural studies' foundational thinkers, Raymond Williams.

The phrase "importance of occasion" is a correlate of the concept of event. In turn, the idea of place blends the everyday worlds of both artistic production site and audience perception. It is through these conjunctures - between and within occasion and place - that everyday meanings get made, that pleasures are experienced, and that global and local intersect. Thus, the occasion may be signaled as such by its cost. "The high price of a seat at a hit Broadway show is perhaps part of the attraction of attending that kind of theatrical event.... This suggests the power of economics to alter the production-reception contract"(Bennett 1997, 118-19).

But other constituents making this an occasion will probably be present too (e.g., this high-priced seat may be a special anniversary present or a chance to bring the family together in one leisure-event activity, etc.). Thus, the theatrical event also becomes part of everyday negotiation in the quite varied and multiple lives of audience members. "Multiple horizons of expectations [in the audience drawn to an event] are bound to exist within any culture and these are, always, open to re-negotiation before, during, and after the theatrical performance. The relationship then between culture and the idea of the theatrical event is one that is necessarily flexible and inevitably rewritten on a daily basis"(Bennett 1997, 106).

There is an important methodological cue here in Bennett's recourse to the theatrical event as everyday process. The event is processual not only in the sequence of production, performance, circulation, and reception but also as reception. It is an audience event insofar as multiple horizons of expectations are renegotiated "before, during, and after the theatrical performance." Thus, any "flat" methodology, such as the familiar quantitative theatre audience surveys that Bennett derides, is likely to miss important aspects of the "live" relationship of negotiation between occasion and place. An audience participates in a performance processually, across a changing temporality before, during, and (sometimes long) after the performance.

Theatre audiences ... tend to consist of small groups of friends, family, and so on. Reception can be prolonged by group discussion of all aspects from general appreciation to specific questions to other group members about small details of the production. Beyond the ability to talk about the production ... audiences may follow up by reading the text (if available),by reading reviews, or (at a later time) seeing another production or even a subsequent movie adaptation. All these acts have the potential to reshape initial decoding of the production. All these elements of post-production are potentially significant in the audience's experience of theatre and all promote, if not ensure, the continuance of the culture industry's attracting audiences to the theatrical event. It is the reciprocal nature of production and reception which characterizes the formation and reformation of cultural markers for theatre. (Bennett 1997, 164-65)

By examining Bennett's passing references to the theatrical event, we can see how use of the concept encourages a particular methodological focus in her book. The two elements of production and reception should be central to a study of theatre not only because they are inseparable. Both these elements also need to be studied in local theatre sites among the "small groups of friends, family, and so on" (my emphasis) that constitute the typical theatre audience. Further, this analysis of theatre reception needs to be sensitive to the interactive changes in "reading" the performance that viewing live theatre as a small-group communal occasion (with pre- or postshow dinner, interval chat over drinks, etc.) encourages. Clearly, the methodological tendency here is toward some kind of very localized, interactive, qualitative approach.

But this is not to say that Bennett eschews global analysis or generalizable statements when talking about the theatrical event. In her analysis two features in particular mark out the theatrical event from other conjunctures of occasion and place within the broader leisure industry. First, there is the issue of "liveness" in the context of communication and culture. Television, above all, lacks the sense of public event that attaches to both theatre and cinema. It denies the audience the sense of contact with the performers that is integral to any theatrical performance and, moreover, it denies the spectator-to-spectator communication (in both its positive and negative aspects) within the larger framework of audience as community.... [T]heatre is an obviously social phenomenon. It is an event which relies on the physical presence of an audience to confirm its cultural status" (Bennett 1997, 84, 86).

Second, Bennett draws on Victor Turner (who has been as foundational an influence on theatre-performance studies as Raymond Williams has been within cultural and television studies) to widen the implications of theatrical event to the macrosocial. "Anthropologists such as Victor Turner argue for the indispensability of the theatrical event.... Theatrical performances are, according to Turner, deliberately structured experiences 'which probe a community's weaknesses, call its leaders to account, desacralize its most cherished values and beliefs, portray its characteristic conflicts and suggest remedies for them' (Turner 1982, 11).... Thus audiences have become aware of the event of theatre as in some way important in socio-cultural processes" (Bennett 1997, 104-5).

Important issues are raised here that I will develop later. Suffice it to say at this point that the concepts of liveness in a "mediatized" society (Auslander 2000) and of audiences themselves performing amid the "theatricalization of everyday life"(Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998) are current and ongoing themes in both theatre and cultural studies, which in this book will have a more central place in discussing globalized aspects of the theatrical event than Turner's more functionalist formulation.

Bennett's emphasis on the power of the theatrical event to "desacralize ... cherished values and beliefs" places her firmly in the cultural studies resistance tradition; and, as in the work of many of the leading scholars in this field (see, e.g., Ien Ang's critique of Janice Radway's work on romance novels [1996,98-108]),there is a tendency here to a "vanguardist" approach to everyday resistance. In Theatre Audiences Bennett tends to dismiss both mainstream theatre and popular television for operating within hegemonic frames rather than providing the liminal spaces (Turner) of alternative theatre. Thus, decentering of occasion and place becomes the guiding theme of Bennett's book, with her revised edition taking this further into non-Western alternative theatre events.


Excerpted from Shakespeare and Chekhov in Production and Reception by John Tulloch Copyright © 2005 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface....................ix
PART 1: INTRODUCTION 1 Defining Theatrical Event and Audience Research....................3
2 Spectatorship, Social Audiences, and Risk: Shakespeare at the Q Theatre....................38
PART 2: PRODUCTION/AUDIENCE STUDIES 3 Imagining Audiences: The Eyre/Griffiths Productions of The Cherry Orchard....................83
4 The "Reading Chekhov" Project: Social Audiences and Reading Formations....................113
5 The Theatrical Event: Inner and Outer Audience Frames....................154
PART 3: THEATRICAL EVENT STUDIES 6 Contextual Theatricality: The Theatrical Event as Occasion and Place....................189
7 Cultural Contexts: Theatrical Event, Liminality, and Risk in The Free State....................219
8 Playing Culture: Pleasurable Play in The Free State and The Cherry Orchard....................242
9 Theatrical Playing: Much Ado, Mediatization, and "Liveness,"....................271
10 Conclusion....................294

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