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The Collective Experience of the Audience
by June Abernathy

What is "collective experience"? In my definition, it is the "givens" that the author, director, and the rest of the creative staff of a show, are assuming the audience knows. These may be topical or political issues, like Watergate, or WWII, or trends such as the miniskirt or punk rock.

Sometimes an author is counting on the audience's familiarity with an earlier theatrical production or movie. All parodies, for instance, assume that we are somewhat familiar with the original - otherwise, the parody has no meaning. But, it could be argued, a well made parody will succeed on it's own, and have an added dimension for those who "get" the joke. Certainly the infamous Looney Tunes Opera Parodies and celebrity characatures succeed in this aim.

But, I believe that most authors are counting on at least most of the audience having some common points of reference. Shakespeare's audiences, for instance, (even the illiterate groundlings) could be expected to have a passing familiarity with the Bible and certain Church of England rituals, as well as a working knowledge of at least the high points of British history to that time, including which King succeeded which, and the rules governing succession. He wrote with this in mind. Part of learning to read and dissect Shakespeare now means, for most of us, having to learn all or some of this.

In the same way, Broadway authors (often unconciously) write with certain "givens" in mind concerning the common knowledge base of their audience. Sometimes this misfires - When Into the Woods premeired, for instance, Lapine and Sondheim were said to be amazed at the number of people who were NOT familiar with the basic fairy tales. They assumed that the basic plots of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, et al, were common knowledge. They wrote (at least originally) with this thought in mind. Certainly, Sondheim and Weidman were assuming that the audience had some basic knowledge of American history when they wrote Assassins.

Certainly most works can be enriched by having certain knowledge. If you were familiar with the "Seven Deadly Sins", then you would have a certain advantage at Getting Away With Murder. If you were familiar with pontilist artwork, then Sunday In The Park With George would have a deeper meaning. But were the authors assuming that you had such knowledge?

The explosion of television, telecommunications, and computers, turning the world into a "global gillage", was supposed to homogenize the world - in effect, making everyone's "collective experience" much more similar to his neighbors. In reality, pretty much the opposite has happened. The fact is, there are very few things (books, plays, songs, news events, etc.) that can truly be said to be a universal part of the knowledge and experience of the "average" theatre goer any more. I don't think this makes any one group smarter or more sophisticated than another, unless you define sophistication to mean a breadth of experience. Still, who is to say that any one "sophisticated" person's experience will neccessarily contain the touchstones neccessary for a truly informed viewing of an author's work?

The best crafted work, whether it be My Fair Lady or The Muppet Show, will have elements that work at many different levels of comprehension. One may be deeper than another, but not neccessarily more valid.

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