On Passersby: Medieval Mindsets and Transatlantic Audiences
Stop. Stare. Linger. Walk away. As we sixteen-odd college students and a professor rehearsed in front of Fordham’s entrance on 60th Street, a slew of passersby engaged in this routine. Unsure of what we were doing and why we were yelling in public about the corruption of the soul, these New Yorkers paused, waiting for some kind of explanation or context for our behavior. Without “disrupting” our spectacle and asking directly, all they had to go on to gather an explanation was the dialogue we were shouting and the rhythm of our rehearsal. Citizens of a city marked by progress and innovation, these New Yorkers didn’t know just how medieval they were being.
Hundreds of years before, medieval audience members were also stopping, staring, lingering, and walking away during festivities on the streets of England’s cities. These audiences were able to saunter in and out of different scenes performed on pageant wagons with no expectation of staying seated for the length of a performance. Medieval audiences did not observe the customs of staying quiet, attentive, and removed from the action of the play, as most audience members expect to do today. These medieval patrons were not given “ye olde Playbille” to provide a synopsis of the play or cover any plot holes they might’ve missed in their festive wanderings. Instead, they had to piece together the play from the bits and pieces they did watch while engaging in the festivity around them. Still, these medieval audiences had some theatergoing aides modern audiences don’t. Medieval playmaking was rooted in the communities that mounted the production. With trade guilds and confraternities coming together to produce seasonal plays, often as part of a cycle, the great majority of people within a local community would either participate in or know someone participating in the plays’ production.
“ This presented us with two problems: how do we get passersby to engage with a play that doesn’t fit into the modern mold of public behavior, and how do we get them to disregard the modern conventions of being an audience member?”
This cultural context was not something our modern audience had available when they stumbled upon our production of Wisdom. Absent normative cultural acknowledgement and acceptance, our gathering to perform a medieval play was seemingly strange and out of place. This presented us with two problems: how do we get passersby to engage with a play that doesn’t fit into the modern mold of public behavior, and how do we get them to disregard the modern conventions of being an audience member?
As we rehearsed, we learned how to overcome the first hurdle of drawing in unsuspecting passersby. Instead of ignoring them or treating them as disruptions to the play’s sequence of events and dialogue, Professor Albin urged us to incorporate their wayfaring into our play. We began to toy with the idea of the passerby as an unsuspecting player in the game of our play. One man who approached during rehearsal to ask after a bathroom inside Lowenstein soon found Anima and Lechery jesting about the state of his soul. This practice kept us on our toes and built our confidence in assuaging the discomfort of wandering New Yorkers. On the day of the performance, actors invited the audience to take a seat as the Faculties implored them to stay virtuous and the Vices enticed them with corruptions of the soul. Unlike the ubiquitous pollsters and fundraisers imploring passersby to interact, our production piqued New Yorkers’ interests with its oddly colorful characters and strange obscurity.
Although we were able to gather a sizeable crowd, our audience was still not primed to attend Wisdom with the mindset of a medieval audience. Modern theatre-goers are expected to sit quietly in their seat with their phone turned off and full attention directed to whomever is speaking. For our play, we instead wanted audience members to be rowdy, get up out of their seats, and engage with the characters during the play. An active audience was an integral part of our play, and we were relying on them to be involved in our jests. In staging the Vice’s dance battle, for example, we knew we didn’t have enough dancers to convey the raving party we wanted to evoke, so we decided to let that scene be one of our participatory audience moments. To encourage the audience to engage, we decided to hand out colored bandanas before the play began, in order to mark certain audience members as active participants. This ended up working in our favor twofold: a little forewarning allowed audience members to mentally prepare to dance in the street, at the same time that it primed them before the show even started with the notion that they were expected and encouraged to participate, dismantling the fourth wall before the audience could even build one.
The transformative effects of these choices were also twofold. By pushing the audience to take on a medieval audience’s mindset, we also forced ourselves as actors into the role of the spectator. No matter how much time we spent rehearsing, we could never predict how the audience would react to our invitations to perform, so as their involvement unfolded during the production we were as much spectating them as they were spectating us. This give and take allowed the audience to shed their discomfort and share in the fun of medieval participatory theatre.
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Much as we performed for the 70 or so physical audience members who gathered on Saturday morning to watch us play Wisdom, our total audience was not limited to just the passersby on the street and the attendees we invited. In fact our audience was not even limited to the greater New York area—unbeknownst to us at the time, our performance had traveled across the Atlantic to entertain another audience in London. After we took our final bows, one of my friends studying abroad texted me to congratulate me on a job well done, letting me know that she had seen the play. As it turns out, the Manhattan pickup/dropoff point for our intercampus shuttle, the Ram Van, was just alongside our performance space. Drivers waiting to pick up passengers had been Snapchatting videos of our performance to other Ram Van drivers and Fordham students, with some videos making their way to my friend in England.
This transatlantic broadcast shows how behind every audience member lies a network of people with whom they might share the experience of watching and participating in our play. This network manifested in one way with my friend in London; however, there are countless others who could have seen snippets of our play as audience members snapped quick pictures and videos to share with their friends. Even more will see it through our digital archive. In these ways, a modern audience is not limited to the bodies physically there to attend a performance, but extends to the hundreds of people connected to each audience member through social media and technology.
“In a manner reminiscent of travelling actors’ troupes, who would travel from town to town to perform for an ever greater audience, texting and social media helped us garner a vast audience of our play, without our even knowing it.”
Certainly, medieval audiences did not have the ability to share the performances they attended as we do, nor were playmakers able to record their performance for posterity or redistribution in the formats we use. Yet we, too, weren’t fully aware of how our Wisdom would be recorded and shared. We had taken into account our own recording process in filming the production, but we hadn’t realized the capacity for instantaneous distribution of our performance through technology and social media. Ultimately, we not only brought our play before a modern audience for viewing, we also brought it before them as a spectacle to share. In a manner reminiscent of travelling actors’ troupes, who would travel from town to town to perform for an ever greater audience, texting and social media helped us garner a vast audience of our play, without our even knowing it.
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Coming from a more traditional theatre background, I was nervous to see how our production of Wisdom would be received by the world around us. In the heart of the concrete jungle, I was worried we would become more like a zoo exhibit than an integrated environment for performance in the public sphere of the city. Those fears ended up unfounded: although most passersby engaged in the waltz of stop, stare, linger, walk away, glimmers of engaged appreciation and raucous participation eventually emerged. From the man whose dog pulled him towards our rehearsal, prompting him to give up the tug of war and instead sit and watch us, to the enthusiastic crowd of dancers who cranked and twerked together, our audience’s willingness to shed modern conventions became the bright star of our performance.