Audience Participation – Reflections on acting in Cock

by Amanda Quaid

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation

Post image for Audience Participation – Reflections on acting in Cock

M You take it out that’s what you do you take it out first otherwise what’s the point?
John alright
M It’s not alright it’s a
Don’t
Don’t you dare, put it down first put it down
John I can’t. I can’t. Not when you’re.
M I’m
John OH!

So begins Mike Bartlett’s four character play, Cock. On stage, two men face each other, dressed like they walked straight out of the audience, holding no props, miming no gestures, in the midst of an argument about…something. We don’t know. We have to listen. Over the course of Cock, there’s a dinner party with beef and red wine, a sex scene, a coffee shop, embroidered Teddy bears, something breakable that is almost broken, and a fake dog, yet there is no set, no props, and no miming. Nothing that happens literally happens. The audience must, through language, create the visual for themselves. From this very first exchange, the audience puts together the visual story as two actors simply stand across from each other and use words. What is it? What is out? Out from where? Their imaginations roll as they gather clues as to what they are watching through language.

I was lucky enough to be a member of the company of the U.S. premiere of the play, directed by James Macdonald, which just concluded a five month run Off-Broadway. The writing and the audience set-up, both of which were unique to my experience as an actor, taught me a tremendous amount about the audience-performer relationship and the possibilities for a different, deeper kind of “audience participation.”

The set-up for Cock was, to say the least, unusual. We played in a 200-seat plywood cockfighting arena in which the audience sat on backless benches around us. They remained fully lit throughout, allowing them to watch each other and, perhaps unbeknownst to them, allowing us to observe them. The front row was inches from the action. The third row was directly in our eye line for the entire performance. The proximity of the audience made for a show that was truly and inevitably different each night, and the audience, without being put on the spot, had an integral role to play.

As a performer (my colleagues were Jason Butler Harner, Cory Michael Smith, and Cotter Smith), the first few weeks of previews required a focus and intensity of concentration I had never had to use before. Each time I looked into the eyes of my scene partner, there were 100 faces right behind him, just as lit as his and almost as close. Those faces were not always gazing at us with rapt and undivided attention. They could be laughing, yawning, nodding, head shaking, playing with their hair, chewing gum, looking at their girlfriend, checking their watch, or reading the program, sometimes all at the same time. At talk-backs, we learned that many were oblivious to the fact that we could even see them.

At first, I found myself fighting to keep focus, actively tuning everybody out. I didn’t want to be derailed. What if I saw someone I knew? What if I saw a critic or a famous playwright or someone sleeping? I didn’t want to lose my lines, I didn’t want to be taken out of the moment. In short, I wanted to be back in the rehearsal room!

But somewhere in the middle of the second month, once we were open and the show had been well received, I went up to the booth before my entrance and watched the audience watch the first few scenes. To even peer out at them before I went on seemed dangerous, but I was suddenly reminded of something another actor once told me as I stood anxious in the wings: an audience is just a group of strangers that come together one night in their entire lives. As actors, we like to generalize about a house–it’s a good house, they’re hating it, they’re tired tonight, it must be date night, everybody’s drunk, it’s your standard Saturday night crowd, well, you know, it’s Tuesday! We sort of turn an audience into one organism, which in a way it is, but peeking out, I was reminded that they are–gasp!–individuals. Individuals who don’t have an agenda on our show, to love it or hate it, they’re just there, their own complicated lives intersecting for 90 minutes in the same place.

That night, I went on stage with new room in my heart. I started seeing the audience more in performance, allowing them in to my character’s head. I noticed how, if I made a strong point, someone would be nodding, and I’d let that strengthen my resolve. At some performances, a revelation from one character would prompt a group gasp, and that would fuel my own sense of shock and surprise. One night, as I was telling off Cotter’s character, I saw a tough-looking guy right in my eye line give a thumbs up, and all of a sudden, I felt bolder. After all, that guy had my back! Another night, in a tricky scene in which my character was powerless and trying to be heard, my scene partner, Cory, had his hand on his hip, blocking the view of an elderly woman in the front row. As I pleaded with Cory, I saw from the corner of my eye the lady’s white-haired head peek through the crook of his elbow to get a better view. Somehow, her quiet little movement made me feel my point of view was being listened to intently, and it made me stronger in the scene.

None of this was ever apparent to the audience, how they were affecting us. We never made direct eye contact with them or spoke to them or referred to them directly, what I had always thought of as “audience participation.” Rather, it was a subtler, somehow truer relationship that developed between their presence and the performance.

Even more striking than how the audience affected us was how they affected each other. They could see each other throughout, and, conversely, that meant that their reactions were always on display. The best was when they would laugh at a laugh. We’d say a line, one lone audience member would laugh in a funny way, then everybody would laugh at that person’s laughter. Or we’d make a good point, someone would make a loud “hmm!” noise, like the idea really landed on them, then they would realize everyone had heard them, and they would laugh at the rest of the audience laughing at them. It was all in great fun and made for a totally fresh experience for the audience, and for us. This is one play I’ve done that never, ever felt stale or like we were on auto-pilot, even after five months.

COCK actors in the space. Photo by Nilanjana Bose.

So, in short, Cock helped me make friends with the audience, not to see them as an anonymous mass out there in the dark that is a “good” house or a “bad” house (terms I’ve never liked or understood), but to see them as they are–a collection of individuals who are sometimes really with you, sometimes off somewhere else, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing, sometimes stoic and unreadable. And there’s room for all of it. There’s room because it’s theater at its most elemental.

The audience must be central to the experience. Theater is competing now with so many entertainment mediums–there are a hundred ways to spend a Saturday night. What’s unique about the theater is that it brings people together, in very close proximity, to experience a story live with the performers, moment to moment, and ideally anything can happen. Audience centrality ensures that the experience will be vastly different night to night, unlike anything you can find on television or anywhere else. For us, it worked. And once I opened up to it as a performer, to the messy unpredictability of a group of random live strangers, it was exhilarating beyond words to be a part of. I can only hope that more plays will be written and produced with this kind of focus on “audience participation.”


Amanda Quaid is an actor from New York City. Favorite theater credits include: US premiere of Cock by Mike Bartlett, directed by James Macdonald, Equus on Broadway opposite Daniel Radcliffe, Brecht’s Galileo opposite F. Murray Abraham (Classic Stage Company), Mrs. Warren’s Profession opposite Elizabeth Ashley (Shakespeare Theatre), Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Corneille’s The Illusion directed by Michael Mayer (Signature Theatre), Rosalind in As You Like It (Folger). Quaid graduated from Vassar and is on the faculty of HB Studio, where she teaches dialects to actors from around the word. She was selected by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs to be a 2012 participant in SPARC: Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide, placing her as an artist-in-residence at NYC senior centers to lead workshops in Shakespeare’s verse. Her essay, “On Borders, Old and New” was previously published on TCG Circle and in American Theatre magazine.