I’m in a play right now that my good friend James wrote. It’s called Masturbating While Lonely, and no, it’s not a performance piece where you watch me masturbate for an hour. That tends to be the most common question we get. My friend Holly and I are the only two actors in it, it takes place in my double room in Slocum, and it is one of the most brilliantly written pieces I’ve ever read or had the honor of performing. That being said, it’ll make sense why I’m using this play as an exemplar piece to figure out my own writer’s block.
As a two-person cast and director/playwright trio, we have had some scintillating conversation in between runs of the show. We’ve talked feminism, existentialism, Darwinism, pretty much all the isms; but the most important conversation that we’ve had was about the audience. Masturbating While Lonely (MWL) is centered around the audience in a way that I have never seen before in a play, nor will I probably see again once I leave college. We fit 21 audience members in my room last night, sitting on folding chairs, my couch, the windowsill, and each other. As you can imagine, this leaves a minimal amount of space for Holly and me to act. We are permitted our beds, our desks, and a three-foot-wide aisle space in between audience sides. Because of this, we are forced to talk directly to an audience that is inches from us. The play is immeasurably dependent on how the audience reacts to us.
There are three monologues delivered at the beginning of the play in what’s called “direct address,” or “breaking the 4th wall.” At this point in America’s history, many of you may be more familiar with the term “that thing Kevin Spacey does in House of Cards.” This means that, respectively, I talk directly to the audience while Holly’s asleep, and then I leave and Holly talks directly to the audience, and then she leaves and I come back and talk directly to them one more time. Eye contact in this show is huge. We look at the audience while we talk, and they tell us what the rest of the show will be like by looking away, by maintaining eye contact, by nodding, by laughing, etc. In a space this small, this is exacerbated to the point where it is a completely different show every time we do it.
Of course, we also have a responsibility in deciding what the show will be. There is an audience “feedback loop,” where we give them something, they decide how they feel about it, and then we react accordingly.
Back to the conversation we had about the audience. I just unpacked most of it for you, but the most important part is realizing that we as actors have the responsibility of conducting the audience. A lot of critics and writers and actors talk about how the actor’s instrument is his body–he fine-tunes it and plays it with precision to yield the results he wants. But in a show like this where it hardly feels like playing a character and it’s so damn relatable that the audience is crying fifteen minutes in, THEY become the instrument. We are playing them for all we’re worth, and damned if it doesn’t make something beautiful in the process.
Of course, this is a block blog, so I’m going to come full circle here and say that I realized yesterday that my job as a playwright is to write something that will make the audience feel like they are being guided through a real experience. The most effective performance is one where the actors and the audience are completely in sync with one another.
Not sure I can pull it off. Only time will tell. Updates to come.