Wisdom and Its Audience, Outside the Fourth Wall
Charles Laboy Jr.
“For this kind of theatre, the audience is a part of the performance almost as much as the actors are themselves. The essence of these plays resides in actors’ ability to draw the audience into the performance.”
The act of performing medieval drama is a complicated one, not by nature, but by virtue of the present time period in which we perform it. After performing Wisdom, I can confirm that the hardest thing to understand was the loss of the fourth wall, the invisible barrier between the audience and the actors that simply didn’t exist in medieval drama. For this kind of theatre, the audience is a part of the performance almost as much as the actors are themselves. The essence of these plays resides in actors’ ability to draw the audience into the performance. For morality plays, the goal is to teach the audience a moral lesson within a Christian framework by personifying abstract concepts as characters. Wisdom is a perfect example of a morality play that draws in its audience, a fact that we had fun with in script and performance. The production worked because of our willingness as performers to lean into the medieval style and because of our audience’s openness to all the invitations into performance we created. It was the joint relationship between audience and actors that made the play a success.
During the Middle Ages, these plays were performed with the audience firmly in mind. Most of the time, the audience was the reason the play was even staged to begin with. If the church, the court, or the city wanted to make a statement or reach a wide audience, putting on a play was one of the best ways to do it. Morality plays, for example, allowed a community to talk not just about moral conduct but also about political issues, economic problems, moral debates, and religious topics of the day. They could bring a lot of attention to these issues since they spoke to such a large audience, and they served to teach those watching something they could take away with them. They could teach children basic lessons about the Lord while offering older citizens more sophisticated lessons on how to be a devout person, extending the influence of institutions like the Church. They weren’t all serious, though: morality plays also involved a lot of fun and wanted to entertain their audience. Looking at Wisdom, it’s clear that the playwrights kept the audience’s experience in mind when they were constructing these plays.
For instance, the play clearly breaks into sections, with characters summarizing what has just occurred in the previous section to accommodate passersby who happen to join the performance midway. (Keep in mind, there were no tickets or assigned seats for medieval drama.) Long, showy speeches give other actors enough time for costume changes and other stage business. The makers of these plays were keenly aware of their audience and wanted to make the play clear, obvious, fun, and accessible for the people watching. Subtlety was never a goal, or even a care for that matter. Allegories make clear what concept each character is literally meant to represent. Costume design is explicit and extravagant. Before the creation of standards for professional acting, actors’ portrayal of their characters were never supposed to meet some high bar of “good acting.” Rather, most people who gathered to participate did so for fun, for social status, or for teaching purposes—and, the characters and the actors who played them weren’t always strictly separate, creating local color and commentary. Instead, making sure everyone had fun and understood the message by the end of the performance was most important.
For us, the process of putting together the play was most of the fun. Of course, the real magic happened during the actual performance, but none of it would have happened without all of the work that led up to the day. Keeping the audience in mind and realizing that we would perform out in the open world was the first real hurdle, and the most important one. There are big differences between performing on a stage and performing in open public space. As an actor, you’re more or less on the same level as the seated audience. You must stay aware that they are in the same space as you, not only to watch, but also to engage. Opening the performance space to the audience became one of the most challenging aspects of the play. Usually, the architecture of the stage surrounds the play as a whole, lending the performance a spatial foundation. With medieval drama, though, those walls don’t exist. There are no barriers keeping the audience separate from the actors; there is no sense of being separated at all.
“Medieval drama helped teach us how to play in the space and with the people around us.”
When it came time for our performance, our actors were very aware of their performing space and all the people occupying it. It was clear to see that we were using the environment in ways we hadn’t before, and interacting with each other in ways we hadn’t before! The only thing that had changed was the presence of an audience. This helped prove to me that medieval drama is really a two way street. It isn’t possible to perform these plays without full trust in your company of actors and full awareness of your open space. Our choice of performance space was key here: acting in front of Fordham’s front doors brought us in contact with lots of foot traffic that allowed us to play with a wide range of people in the audience. Given how the play operates and how we operate as Fordham students, we couldn’t have performed anywhere else but in front of the school: we were so comfortable with our surrounding area that we practically existed in that place exclusively. Being comfortable in the space allowed us to be comfortable with the people in that space, and we were able to put on a great show because of it. Medieval drama helped teach us how to play in the space and with the people around us.
While we were there acting in front of an audience, Wisdom didn’t really feel like a performance. Instead, it felt like more like an open discussion with everyone watching and contributing. Things happened on stage that never happened during rehearsals, and that wouldn’t have happened if not for the audience’s presence. Audience members at one point attempted to keep Anima on stage and dancing with them as Wisdom tried to drag her away. The Vices got creative and encouraged heckling throughout the entirety of the play. I got unexpectedly slapped by one of my onstage partners! These things never happened in rehearsal, but with the addition of a watching audience, we were all able to produce something unique, local, and personal to that moment in time, in that place, with that audience. That is where the magic of medieval drama is.