Sitting in the Dark: Ethnography of Patrons of Professional Theatre

Redfield, Neil
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University of Delaware
There has been very little study on the experience of live theatre audience members. In order to better understand the audience experience in contemporary western theatre, ethnography was conducted with patrons of professional theatre in the Berkshires, MA. During five weeks in the field, dedicated theatre-goers were interviewed and theatre performances were attended as a participant-observer, following standard iterative-inductive ethnographic methodology, while attempting to answer the question “What does attending theatre mean to audience members?” It was identified that there are many different models that can be applied to understand aspects of the meaning of the audience experience. The models include escapism, “edutainment,” social experience, communal experience, ritual significance, social class identification, social critique, and religious significance. It is argued that, while each of these models illuminates a subset of the meaning of theatre attendance, none of them provide a holistic understanding by themselves. Instead, it was determined that a perspective which synthesizes these meanings is most appropriate. Cross-cultural comparisons to ludruk in Java and the Ramlila in India are included in the analysis. The theatre event is a structure which allows its audience members to enter the psychological state of flow, in which narratives are dissected and reassembled into meanings more rapidly. The central meaning of attending theatre in the Berkshires, an area with a substantial retired population, is that it affirms one’s active participation in the world through this highly involved meaning-making process in response to a wide variety of stories.