Script writers, performers, and directors often break the fourth wall in live theatre to create a connection with the audience. When shows make reference to sharing a physical and emotional space with their audience, both performers and audience members can acknowledge that they are connected—present and involved in the reality of the experience. The connection differs from performance to performance: each show’s tone, energy, and flow depend on how the performers and audiences engage, creating unique relationships in each performance.
Breaking the fourth wall doesn’t always mean making direct references to being in a play or musical, or direct recognition of the audience. Some of the most profound connections I’ve felt with performers and audiences have been when the wall was broken in unconventional ways, especially when the physical boundary between stage and audience was crossed. Three experiences in particular come to mind when I think about how this has changed my understanding of the relationship between performers and audiences.
The recipe for a musical
When I saw Something Rotten, written by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, I went to see it alone without knowing anyone else in the theatre. Luckily, the show allowed me to feel a sense of camaraderie with my fellow audience members, because of the way it reached out to us through jokes and references. The musical takes place during the Renaissance, in which a pair of brothers attempt to write a hit play that will supposedly be greater than Shakespeare’s plays. They turn to a soothsayer, who predicts that the next big thing onstage will be something called a “musical.” They then perform a number, attempting to illustrate what musical is. This is done through comical explanations of the conventions of musicals, as well as through numerous references to other musicals, from Les Misérables, to Rent, to The Music Man. It is also clever because it makes fun of breaking into song—precisely what they are doing in that moment. In this number, the show is able to reach the audience by poking fun at the experience they are all sharing, and acknowledge other musicals which are familiar to the them. The show lovingly makes fun of itself and of the musical theatre genre as a whole. I have never felt more connected to an audience than I did when the show made references to the art form that each person in the room loved. The theatre felt like a space of celebration with a bunch of other musical theatre fans. This appreciation broke down the theatrical conventions that can often make performers and audiences feel separated from each other, and united everyone in the space as human beings with a shared passion.
Please spell “audience participation”
One of my favourite musicals is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, written by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn. This is a hilarious musical comedy, which follows a group of pre-teens competing at a spelling bee, each with unique and slightly strange strategies for ensuring they spell the words correctly. A crucial aspect to the show is that four audience members are chosen and brought onstage to take part in the performance, spelling the words required of them and competing with the actors. The actor who plays the pronouncer in the show also has the opportunity to introduce these audience members by making up comical facts about them, which will change every night. Although, the script does control when the audience members are eliminated. The separation between the audience and the stage evaporates not only when the audience members first come onstage, but also in the inclusion of the audience in some of the songs and dance numbers. When I saw this show, it was spontaneous and hilarious. Imagine if one of the chosen audience members was your dad, or your sister, or your friend. Whether you are one of these audience members or not, the show changes the performer-audience relationship by bringing these two categories of people closer together and making the stage, as a space, more accessible.
From the performer’s perspective
A brilliant show that breaks the fourth wall by disrupting the barrier between stage and audience is Once. Once was originally a film, directed by John Carney, with music written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. The book of the stage adaptation is written by Enda Walsh. It follows the story of a Dublin man who writes music as a hobby, and one day, while busking, meets a young Czech woman who is a musician herself. They write music and form a band while developing a close—and arguably romantic—relationship. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the stage adaptation is that the entire cast forms the orchestra: each cast member plays at least one instrument and they accompany themselves throughout the show. The actors and musicians also have a chance to display their talent by playing music onstage at the beginning of the show as the audience takes their seats. At this time, the audience is invited to come onstage and buy a drink from the bar, listening to the performers jam together onstage. This makes the performers more accessible to the audience: instead of waiting offstage before the show, they create an open space that is more casual, shifting from the usual formality of theatre performances. Though the performers are not onstage at intermission, you are also allowed to go onstage and take photos. The audience is given the chance to literally see from the perspective of the performers onstage, looking out at the crowd. This dissolves the boundaries between the spaces, which are customarily separate of performers and audience, sharing a perspective that is normally exclusive to the performers.
The theatre is a space in which a divide exists between audience and performers, but not in such a way that each person there cannot connect with others through the experience that they are sharing. When shows and actors are conscious of the divide and make attempts to break it down, it creates a more balanced and reciprocal relationship that is unique to each performance and person, leaving a distinct impression that lasts, even after the show is over.