I’ve been wondering: does it really make any difference how old your audience is? *SPOILER* The answer is yes. And also no.
I’m working on a new play, Revolt. She said. Revolt again. It explores the words and assumptions that shape the lives of women. The play doesn’t have a conventional narrative, there’s sex, violence and there’s bad language. I’m not talking a bit impolite, I’m talking eye-poppingly, ear-bleedingly downright filthy language. And on top of this, the writer – Alice Birch – opens the play with the challenging stage direction ‘This play should not be well behaved.’ With these things in mind as I approached the piece I built myself a solid belief, a belief that the Grown-Ups were not going to like this play. Not at all. That remained my assumption from first reading the script ahead of my audition, throughout rehearsals and right up until the moment I walked out onto the stage for our opening night.
It’s a known fact that, if someone in the audience has a funny laugh – a hooter, a howler or a squawker – then laughter can spread through the crowd from that person. I’ve heard rumours of comedians planting noisy laughers at their gigs for that reason. Our play is definitely funny but it gives you stuff to think about too; I wasn’t sure if there would be loads of laughing or not. So I was pleased when we began the play on the first night to hear a delighted cackle rising from the shadows of the front row. The source was a tiny, white haired lady. She was obviously relating to the subject matter but she was laughing at every swearword too. Every single one. Sure enough the filthiness of her laugh had spread; it wasn’t long before lots of other people were laughing too. Phew!
After the show, cast and crew headed to the bar to congratulate each other on our successes and to groan at the bits we wished we’d done better. Waiting in a chair, grinning from ear to ear, was the white-haired cackler, who turned to us and said loudly, ‘That was FUCKING MARVELOUS’. A passing punter choked on his Merlot.
It turned out that this woman was in fact legendary RSC voice coach Cicely Berry. I was chuffed that she’d liked it so much but I wondered if she might be the exception. I was still worried that the Grown-Ups wouldn’t be into it. But over the next few days I started to realise something: some people were absolutely loving the play and some weren’t, and – in answer to the question of this post – it didn’t seem to have anything to do with age at all. It was lovely to hear the whoops and cheers of a group of students and chat about their impassioned responses afterwards. About their plans to change the world. But it felt equally rewarding and important to present the piece to people who had lived through it, all the things that the play challenges – marriage, sex, work, motherhood.
I was wrong. Mischief is not just for young people. What a stupid idea. As stupid as thinking men wouldn’t like the play because it deals with feminism. I made assumptions about who would like Revolt and who wouldn’t, about what the play’s perfect audience would look like. But an audience doesn’t work that way: no two audiences are the same; each is made up of individual people each with their own histories and opinions, each with secrets and funny bones and with their very own sadness. And for a short time, these people come and sit in a room together and experience the same thing. So actually I don’t mind if you’re young or if you’re old, if you’re a whooper, a cackler or a silently attentive audience member, I don’t even mind if you’re thinking about your interval ice-cream. I don’t mind if you’re a man or a woman. It’s good you came. There wouldn’t be any point in doing it without you.