While the majority of western theatre and film honors the fourth wall, the separation between audience and characters, there are many notable exceptions. But audience interaction, whether live or on camera, doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Like anything else, it is a skill that can be honed, and it’s a very handy one to have in your back pocket. Here are some thoughts to get you started as you’re trying to build an audience connection.
On camera, there is no actual audience with whom to interact. Therefore you must create one for yourself. If you don’t know who you are talking to, that flatness and lack of specificity will read in your eyes. Personalize it. If you are not given someone specific in the text you are talking to, invent one that makes sense. If you are speaking to “the audience,” figure out who they are to you. What do they mean to you? Why are you sharing this particular moment with them? What do you want to gain by sharing it? Be thorough and specific in your answers. It’s like any other action in the scene, it deserves the same care of motivation.
In live theatre there are many different types of audience interaction, and the first thing to do is to determine the conventions under which you are operating. In Shakespeare, for example, characters often break into soliloquies, where characters work out their innermost thoughts, out loud, alone on stage. In these cases they very often engage the audience directly. The audience can serve as witness, judge and jury, confidants, peer reviewers, or a host of other roles in the character’s mind. Often these are moments in the character’s life when a weighty decision must be made, a tricky problem worked out, or a moment of heightened emotion celebrated or despaired. Invite the audience in. Again, the key is figuring out why you are sharing, and what you need from them. What is the ask? Are you seeking their validation? Forgiveness? Insight? Directly sharing your character’s inner life with your audience can be a wonderful, intimate gift. Don’t shy away from it.
In plays both classic and modern direct address can be a wonderful storytelling tool. But it can certainly feel awkward at first. If you’re struggling with where to start, it can be helpful to choose specific beats or lines you know you want to share directly. Find a person in the audience to speak those to. From there just play the objective.
Sometimes the structure of audience interaction is a bit looser. If you are an MC or host you may have to engage in crowd work or actual audience participation. For these roles the first impression you make on your audience is very important. It is crucial to establish trust early on or your audience will be reluctant to play along. It’s a bit like substitute teaching, you can’t let the class walk all over you. But you also can’t bully them into respecting you. Come in with confident, grounded energy. Use whatever text you have to establish your competence and command of the show, and empower them to buy into the experience with you. If you know you will have to get an audience participant later in the show, try to scope out the audience a bit ahead of time for someone who is accessible and willing. A good rule of thumb is you want to avoid the person who is most loudly eager and also the person who completely shies away from it. These roles often utilize at least a bit of improvisation. Remember to empower rather than demand, keep the pace tight, and bring your own brand of personal charm. People will respond to you more if you’re genuine.
Breaking the fourth wall can be as exhilarating, joyful, and poignant as it can be humbling and frustrating. Remember that ultimately, you are serving the story. Trust the text, and trust yourself. The rest will follow.