Like everything else in both the theatrical world and our daily lives, balance is the key. Extremes don’t sustain satisfaction for very long, and yes, that includes the idea of getting applause.
Applause, and in particular an actor’s embrace of applause, gets a bad rap. It’s true that few things are more obnoxious to cast mates, directors, and some audiences than a performer who is clearly “milking” the crowd for more laughs. More applause. More reaction. One who wrings that sponge with such a vengeance that they end up tearing it in half. Sure it may work sometimes, but overall this is a sign of an attention starved hack, and not a consummate performer. You can see these people coming from a mile away. Don’t be one, no matter how much you love the crowd.
The enjoyment of applause is not, however, a sin in and of itself. Applause and other positive audience reaction is significant. Don’t be afraid to embrace it, enjoy it, to be empowered by it. It is even acceptable to try to cultivate more of it, if it is done in a very skilled, subtle fashion. Despite what some may tell you, this does not make you a smaller person or a smaller actor.
There is no getting around it; performances are designed to be seen. Period. Acting, in the very end, is nothing in a vacuum. Ergo, hoping for, and enjoying applause, laughter, or crying from an audience that is moved by the show you are in is a wholesome thing. It proves that people are being touched in someway by your craft. It can also sharpen your senses, deepen your investment, and help you stay steady during a show. It may not be everything, but never ignore the synergism between the audience and the cast.
I have always said that the audience is the last character to be cast in a production. It’s a different character every night. Like characters on stage, one shouldn’t rely 100% on what they are doing to get through the night. But neither should this character be ignored totally. You don’t have to play directly to the audience to respect them, and sense they are there.
Which is why it is crucial to be aware of reactions from the house. Any actor who tells you they don’t care if the audience laughs or applauds I venture to say is either lying to you, or to himself. If such people really mean what they say, it is to their detriment. For if you do not care about audience reaction, then you are refusing to acknowledge them. If you do that, you are not respecting them. And you can believe this if you believe nothing else I have ever written about stagecraft; audiences as a whole know when you do not respect them. They can sense when you are up there just for yourself, or worse, simply killing time until you get to be in something better. That shows, and the audience responds to it.
Balance. Middle ground. Yin and Yang. Call it what you like, but the key is to love and respect applause enough to avoid stealing it, but also to try your hardest to earn it.
(Originally appeared on showbizradio.net on August 5th, 2009.)