As I sat in in the center of the newly-dedicated, freshly painted outdoor cement basketball court, surrounded by a couple of hundred local folks watching youth I had worked with perform, it dawned on me that these local audiences are truly the best audiences in the world. At 7:00 pm on a Saturday night at the ‘Laura’ end of Majuro island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, people sat on rocks, the cement court, wooden side benches, make-shift chairs made from implements found around the nearby houses, their cars (parked at the far end of the court), or just stood-for the entire three hours of our performance.
There is not a concern nor a complaint about sight-lines or softness of seats, but rather a relaxed desire to spend an unexpected evening watching this group of 25 young people perform in their backyard. As dogs chased each other across the loosely defined stage space and little children followed actors backstage, neither the actors nor the audience seemed to take notice of any kind, other than to make room for the kids and dogs.
I’ve painted a background only, however, of what has been a larger experience for me over my 22 year relationship with this islands nation. As happens so often in these performance, when rain suddenly bursts from the sky the audience quickly jumps to their feet, in practiced fashion, and finds the nearest covered area all the while laughing and chatting but keeping their focus towards the stage. As the tech crew runs about the stage and audience area, gathering electronics and covering speakers with plastic bags, the actors continue on, not missing a beat. The audience misses bits and pieces of the particular scene being performed, but they generally keep their attention on the performance throughout.
As the rain slows, which often happens in just moments, the audience returns to their makeshift seats, the electronics are reconnected and the performance moves on, hardly affected by the controlled chaos. Occasionally someone steps on a power cord or strip and a light goes out or microphone goes dead, but someone from tech support tracks it down and rectifies it. This means that once in a while a techie must wander near or even on the stage, but it fazes no one. Essentially you get the feeling that people are thinking ‘Well, what else would you do?’ if they are even aware of what is happening. The audiences have this enviable capacity to concentrate on what’s important and block out the rest.
All of this is simply context to my assertion that these audiences are the best in the world. They are so open, accepting, supportive and appreciative of the performances. They literally eat it up, busting out in huge guffaws, applauding surprising and tantalizing moments that are simple in design, but constructed to play to this specific home audience. They love the romance, since that is generally not on public display here. Feats of simple action make the little kids stand up and copy them or jump up and down in barely contained joy. An occasional audience member shouts out something at the actors, which makes the rest of the audience laugh and seems to feed the actors’ energy. When the young actors discover that the audience will respond to them, they love to play with a call and echo kind of simple dialogue.
Most amazing of all is the engaged patience of the entire gathered group. Everyone from two and three year olds to the elderly stay focused throughout the three hours of the non-stop performance. Many of the pre-school or lower elementary-aged children ended up seeing the performance several times; earlier in the week they settled into the rehearsal hall, an open-air tin-roofed building, and watched the three hour rehearsals once or twice and then returned to the performance, ready to anticipate their favorite parts.
As the last song is sung, the audience simply gets up and walks home. No standing ovation, no prolonged applause, a simple end to a simple and enjoyable evening. And the actors take it in stride. The responses during the performance are what matter and the actors worked hard for them. Later you’ll see a few kids imitating their favorite moment, or calling out the name of a character to a young actor they see on the street. These are my favorite audiences in the world — where theatre simply becomes a part of a good, and unanticipated, day.