It’s all about the audience

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

"Why can't more theater be like this?" That's the thought I keep having lately in radically different contexts over the past two weeks.

First, the question popped up somewhere between Coriolanus and Macbeth during Forced Entertainment's Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare. What struck me was the simplicity of the intimate storytelling. The set up couldn't be simpler: one actor sitting behind a wooden table telling you the story of a Shakespeare play in an hour. Now, it's a little more complicated than that. They told 36 of Shakespeare's plays and used a pantry full of household objects to stand in for the actors - but at its core it was all about story. It's strange that I'd long for more storytelling in the theater but our theater has become so consumed by self-centered emotion that being told a good story feels, at times, like an afterthought.

Then during Notes of a Native Song with Stew, Heidi and the Negro Problem it was an entirely different type of storytelling based not in plot and action but instead in rhythm and inspiration.

Notes of a Native Song is a strange hybrid of a funky sermon and a rock concert loosely inspired by the life and writing of James Baldwin. As the front man, Stew quickly announces, "This isn't going to be one of those shows where this happens and then that happens." If you walked in looking for a biography of Baldwin, you walked out wanting. In that sense, it was precisely the opposite of the clean, linear storytelling of Forced Entertainment but it was no less virtuosic.

The energy behind Stew and the Negro Problem was the consciousness of history and the inescapable power of music. Put simply, they rocked.

So why am I telling you about two entirely different shows that seemed to be remarkable in entirely different ways?

Because in both events, the audience was the central focus. What struck me was how often I go to the theater and that's not the case. Instead of the audience, the focus is up there on the stage.

Somewhere along the way, too many of our theaters have forgotten about their audience. I don't mean just the empty seats we see in too many theaters but something more fundamental. The idea that what makes the theater special is the connection between audience and actor. Maybe we can blame the fourth wall or plays picked for some idea of audience rather than an actual audience filled with actual people.

Just as I was thinking about the connection between these two experiences, onstage Stew argued that what he was doing up there was more like things were in Shakespeare's time, "You know people on the ground in the mud, with giant mugs of mead booing at the actors if they didn't like what they saw."

It's all about the audience and when the theater forgets that it's lost more than its purpose, it's lost its soul.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.