I’ll Be Your One-Way Mirror: Crossing the 4th Wall

by Clay McLeod Chapman

in National Conference

Post image for I’ll Be Your One-Way Mirror: Crossing the 4th Wall

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

There is an invisible partition that theater has raised for itself—a one-way mirror of sorts, much like that familiar chestnut employed in police procedurals. When one side of the mirror is brightly lit, spectators can view from behind the darkened side but not the vice versa.

Let’s play out a Law and Order scenario here: Our suspect is in custody, already in the interview room, in the midst of an interrogation by our trusty detectives. The district attorney watches on from behind the one-way mirror, free to observe while remaining anonymous, outside and inside at the same time, safe inside the shadows, reflective and transparent and completely inculpable all at once.

Our suspect senses someone is watching. Whoever our suspect’s audience may be, the mirror hides their identity, but he knows he is being studied. He can feel their eyes upon him, silently scrutinizing his every word from behind the glass.

The mirror isn’t fooling anybody. Someone is there.

Someone is always there.

Our suspect stands up from his chair and directly addresses the person behind the mirror. It’s always an unsettling moment for our district attorney—to be called out like this. They have been made. For that brief instant, the partition no longer exists. They are dragged out from the shadows, unable to hide any longer.

How did the suspect even know they were there?

The truth is… They always know. The one-way mirror is a lie, a subterfuge of safety in which the audience can bare witness to an event without being implicated.

Theatre has its own one-way mirror.

The fourth wall protects its audience. Yet that sense of safety runs the risk of creating a certain complacency in theater-goers, a lack of engagement in the living, breathing being gesticulating before them onstage. Theater is not an interrogation room. It is not an aquarium. And it is most certainly not a television set.

Theater should implicate its audiences, make them complicit in the performance onstage. They are as integral to the show as the actors are, so why dim the lights and hide in the shadows?

Take the moment Richard III leers at the crowd. The heart skips a beat. That level of engagement activates the audience. At its most powerful, the moment can prompt every last audience member to ask themselves—Is he speaking to me?

Imagine an entire show with that level of interplay. Storytelling at its rawest has always forgone the fourth wall. Performers such as Spalding Gray, Eric Bogosian, Laurie Anderson, Danny Hoch, Penny Arcade actively stare their audiences down. Rather than divide and isolate themselves, these artists have pushed that invisible partition as far back as the very last seat in the house and manifested an atmosphere that nurtures the intimate relationship between audience and performer. The thrill of eye-contact is there. The threat of being called upon is there. The jolt of being drawn onto the stage, crossing through the fourth wall, is always there.

This level of audience-performer interplay is something that I have always personally aspired to capitalize on within my own work.

For nearly eighteen years now, The Pumpkin Pie Show has been a labor of love that I have often described as a “rigorous storytelling session.” At its heart, the show is a rotating set-list of short stories that I have written, performed onstage alongside my cohort Hanna Cheek. A first-person narrative is merely a monologue waiting for an actor to give it voice—so we take these stories that begin their existence on the page and breathe new life into them onstage. Part campfire storytelling, part boxing match, part shamanistic ritual, The Pumpkin Pie Show has established itself as an all-points artistic hodgepodge of both theatre and literature.

Rather than draw a line that divides the audience from the performer, we have always considered our audience to be our silent scene partner. Storytellers are essentially the “deliverers of content”—while all that is ever asked of our audience, unaware of the material, is to merely respond naturally. By creating this dialogue through monologue, we have the ability to strip away those elements that we find extraneous to the tale being told, conjuring up an atmosphere of “creating something out of nothing,” as well as focusing on that ethereal connective tissue between the one telling the story and those listening.

Packed with enough emotional intensity to feel like a rock concert rather than merely spinning a yarn, The Pumpkin Pie Show is pure bedtime stories for big kids. Our shows have always felt more akin to watching a rock n’ roll band than a play, where we apply the performative elements of a rock concert within a small black box space. No two shows are ever the same, no matter what the set list of monologues may be. If the audience changes—so should our stories. The text may remain static, but the performance of them fluctuates, thanks to the varying reactions from one audience to the next.

Theatre should not be safe. The audience should be held accountable for what unfolds onstage. Culpability gets the blood flowing. It engages the audience.

Film doesn’t hold its audience accountable for what they watch. By the time the lights dim, the content is static. The characters onscreen will never factor in one audience’s reaction for the next. Their performance is frozen. There will be a screening of the new tent-pole flick at noon today at the local Cineplex, regardless of whether or not I buy a ticket.

Film never needs its audience.

Theater does.

What leg up does theater have left over film than the direct link between content and spectator, art and audience? Why not capitalize on this relationship?

Audience: Why hide behind the one-way mirror?

Performer: Rather than pretend we don’t know we are being watched, why not call them out? Why not look through the fourth wall and see who’s out there?

This is not an argument for audience participation. This is more than merely advocating direct address.

This is an argument for storytelling. Build a bonfire at center stage and invite the audience to circle around.

This is an argument for intimacy. For black boxes. Embrace the small house. Draw a clear distinction between theater and film and push away from the current Cineplex-trend of our massive Broadway houses. Less spectacle—more intimacy.

And look at each other.

I want to see the whites of my audience’s eyes.


Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the rigorous storytelling session The Pumpkin Pie Show. Publications: rest area (short stories), miss corpus (novel), and The Tribe middlegrade adventure series—Homeroom Headhunters, Camp Cannibal, and Academic Assassins (Disney/Hyperion). Film: The Boy (with Craig Macneill), The Trouble With Dad (with Glenn McQuaid), Late Bloomer (Sundance 2005) and Henley (Sundance 2012). Theatre: Commencement, Hostage Song (music by Kyle Jarrow), and SCKBSTD (music by Bruce Hornsby). Comics: The Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man, Edge of Spider-Verse and Ultimate Spider-Man Adventures. He is a writing instructor at The Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University. Visit him at: www.claymcleodchapman.com