I’m tired of sitting in the dark.
Today’s theater community faces big questions about our relationship to the general public—how to attract (and hold onto) new audiences, how to handle the omnipresence of cell phones, how to make people feel more welcome, etc. In short, how can artists best connect with their audiences? I don’t claim to have a silver bullet answer, but I find myself returning to a single, simple idea that could have a significant impact.
Light the people in the seats.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the thrill of the moment when the house lights dim and then darken before the start of a show—the sudden quiet and sense of anticipation before we plunge into the world of a play. And I appreciate the effect of a well-placed blackout mid-performance, when that world winks out of existence. Darkness can be a powerful artistic tool.
But there are downsides, too. Lots of them. A dark house and a bright stage create a fundamental separation between actors and audience. If you’ve ever stood onstage and tried to peer past the blinding lights to the faces beyond, then you know—it’s hard to see, much less genuinely connect with, anyone out there.
And as artistically satisfying as that initial darkness and silence can be, it’s also intimidating. I’ve been a theatergoer all my life, and even now something about the lights going down makes me instantly need to fidget, riffle through my program, and fret about how long the bathroom line will be at intermission. It is not relaxing.
So—why not turn on the lights?
Think about it. Rather than emphasize how audience and actor are separate, let’s lift that veil and reinforce the sensation, so essential to theater, of shared space and shared time. Theater shouldn’t be about passive spectators and active performers, but a community sharing an experience. They can’t do that on Netflix.
And raising the lights might lower the pressure. What if you didn’t have to fumble blindly in the dark for your program? What if you could (blasphemy!) glance at your cellphone without the screen glaring out like a beacon? Or, if said phone started ringing, what if you could actually see to quickly silence it?
If lighting the audience sounds like a radical departure from tradition—it isn’t. What we today take for granted as an essential aspect of performance is in fact a relatively recent innovation. Theater’s roots, after all, are in the outdoor amphitheaters of Greece—audience and actors alike under one sun and one sky. Shakespeare’s crowded open-air theater kept the audience very close and very visible. Even when advances in lighting allowed theater to move indoors, it wasn’t until the 19th century that it became common practice to darken the house. And it was considered artistically daring at the time!
There are many instances today when theaters already turn up the lights. Partially or fully raised house lights are key to “relaxed performances” offered to accommodate audience members on the autism spectrum. Meanwhile, outdoor theaters don’t have a choice. When I worked at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, I loved seeing the creative ways directors made up for their inability to end scenes with blackouts. And with the rise in actor-audience interaction in today’s theater, many plays require a well-lit audience for at least a portion of the performance. It’s hard to talk to people you can’t see.
So maybe we should relax a little bit. Maybe we should think a little less about what theater is supposed to look like and think more about what it’s supposed to feel like. Some people find going to theater stiff and uncomfortable, and the constraints of a dark house are part of that. To close ranks as a theater culture and say, “If you don’t like how we do this, then we don’t want you” is not only a death knell to all those questions about finding and welcoming new audiences, but is directly contrary to the open, collaborative, creative spirit of theater itself. Turning up the lights can make things more pleasant for the veterans and more inviting to newcomers.
So, let’s try it—let’s turn on the lights. Let’s say, “Welcome in. Make yourself comfortable.”
Do YOU want to leave the house lights on? Let us know in the comments, and make your case with your fellow fans at our next Show-Score Social!