Cultures of Spectatorship

The header picture for my blog is taken from Renoir’s La Loge (The Theatre Box), painted in 1874.  I love it because it encapsulates in one image what my PhD research is about: that the behaviours of theatre audiences can be as fascinating as what is going on on stage.

In the painting, a well dressed couple sit in their box.  The lady expectantly looks out towards the stage space, while her partner’s gaze if fixed more resolutely elsewhere, somewhere up in the higher reaches of the auditorium.  He leans back into the shadows of the box and points his black binoculars up towards the back of the theatre.

The theatre industry dominated Parisian culture towards the turn of the century.  This boom was due in part to the rapidly-growing middle class: these newly-wealthy citizens now had the capital to hire out theatre boxes, where before only those from high society had resided.  People were as eager to be seen at the theatre – and by this, to be seen to have the disposable income to do so – as much to see the art on the stage.   (It was not until just after the turn of the new century that the work on the Parisian stage, particularly with Diaghilev’s visiting Ballets Russes company, demanded a different kind of attention from the watchers).

But the painting’s complex interplay of gazes also suggests something more intricate is going on.  Although the lady is in the forefront of the painting, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the man’s movement behind.  The man’s strained movement looks inappropriate and strangely strained against the relaxed finery of his surroundings.  Is he viewing other citizens attending the theatre, or looking at something illicit and even more eye-catching?  He is clearly looking the ‘wrong’ way; we can only guess at what.

And here is the brilliance of the painting: Renoir manipulates the viewer of the painting into repeating what the man is doing, staring at the edges of the artwork rather than focusing on what seems to be the main subject.  The viewer is implicated in the man’s act.

Through this blog I hope to keep a regular journal of contemporary theatre productions I watch, and other thoughts on subject I feel relevant to my research.  I want to know what engages an audience, how you can measure audience reactions and how the interaction between audience and stageplay/space can work.  Working as part of the theatre company ATC I will be focusing on ATC’s productions as my position gives me a great insight into the development of their work, but I also want to see how this specific experience informs my research into wider London theatre.  And (funding pending) theatre of the wider UK and beyond …

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