Richard Jordan: Fail to think about the audience, and they will fail to think about you
by Richard Jordan – Jun 29, 2017
As a 15-year-old in 1990 watching a preview of The Comedy of Errors from the balcony at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I was given one of the most valuable lessons in overseeing the art of playing a house.
A few rows in front of me was the play’s director, Ian Judge, and his creative team. Throughout the performance, they were not only looking closely at the stage but also at what was going on behind and around them, observing the reaction of the audience to the production and, in particular, how the jokes were landing.
A few days later I attended a post-show discussion Judge was giving. He talked about the importance of the director and producer during previews to move around the house watching it from both the best and worst seats, and that an acute awareness of how the production was engaging with an audience from seats across the theatre was as vital as being focused upon what was playing on the stage in front of you. I have never forgotten this piece of advice and apply it throughout my own work as a producer.
Critics may not sit in the grand circle, but many people seeing their first-ever West End show do
Last weekend, I saw two classic American musical revivals in the West End: the first was 42nd Street, directed by Mark Bramble at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane; the second was Annie, directed by Nikolai Foster at the Piccadilly Theatre. I watched both these productions from the grand circles – and the experiences could not have been more different.
Despite sitting some distance from the stage at 42nd Street, I still felt fully invested in its story. It was clear the director had watched and noted the show from a variety of seats in this tier of the theatre. Foster is a director whose work I admire but over at Annie, I was left questioning how often he had watched a performance at the back of the grand circle, as I felt only on occasion did his capable cast ever look up to it.
Critics may not sit in the grand circle, but many people seeing their first-ever West End show do. Annie, with its volume of young audience members, is a case in point.
In the Piccadilly, unlike Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the auditorium is steeply tiered. Musical theatre also presents the additional challenge of a front-of-house monitor screen often being attached to the dress circle. The performers need to look at this to see the musical director or conductor, but it’s important they don’t just play to the seats near it, especially when the auditorium, as at the Piccadilly, lacks depth.
The hugely talented young cast of Annie might take a cue from an old pro when it comes to playing the house. I was lucky enough to see Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway in April, and the only seat I could get was on the side of the very back row of the Shubert Theatre‘s third-level balcony. Even so, I felt a directness as if she was playing the show just to me.
That’s also a testament to its director, Jerry Zaks, who had clearly watched the previews from seats all over the theatre. Theatre is a business in which you never stop learning, but also where some advice, such as Judge’s, never stops being true.