Features OpinionStrangeness + Charm Published 3 December 2015

The Art of Looking

Strangeness + Charm explores the art of science and the science of art. This month - looking at looking at each other.
Mary Halton

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“You see, but you do not observe.” Sherlock Holmes accuses Dr. Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia. Going on to berate him about his apparent shortcomings in the usual fashion (how strange love is), in this case regarding the steps to their living room and Watson’s apparently flagrant disregard for the number thereof, Holmes is baffled because – as Watson rightly points out – “my eyes are as good as yours.” The detective, in all his impossible, mercurial ingenuity, is perpetually rooted in looking at and analysing the world, whereas his companion perpetually frustrates him by merely seeing that it is there.

“The act of looking,” points out film director Todd Haynes, “is a predicament.” His latest feature, Carol, is set in the 1950s, and for reasons both financial and artistic, cinematographer Ed Lachman borrows much of its aesthetic from photographer Saul Leiter‘s shots through condensation-smudged New York street windows. Haynes frequently frames the lead characters – Cate Blanchett’s Carol and Rooney Mara’s Therese – behind glass because, he says, he wants to remind us that we are looking, watching. Desiring. To disrupt our gaze is to point it out.

We all do a strange thing. We don our finest (or rush out of work in jeans), we shuffle into black boxes and proscenium arch palaces and leaky rooms above pubs and we sit in the dark, clutching plastic cups of warm wine and we watch people. Real people. In the same living, breathing space as us. Convinced that we are all seeing the same thing from our anonymous cloak of darkness.

Our irises relax as the lights are dimmed, pupils widening to absorb the faint, distant flickers from the stage. Photons ping from par cans and spotlights to the floor, set, actors and briefly hurtle through space before entering the cornea. Refracted by the lens, they light up the individual synapses of the retina; each flash of electrical impulse joining to form an inverted world, interpreted by the visual cortex. This area of the brain doesn’t simply process what we’re seeing, but has learned to add context – it knows that the room is not upside down, and that we don’t need to visualise the two distinct images received from each eye, but instead correlates that information to form a 135o world.

But are we all seeing the same thing? It might seem obvious that, seating location notwithstanding, an audience in the same theatre are all having a broadly identical visual experience, but perhaps not. The second picture above may look like an artistic editing choice, but is actually how people with tritanopia colour blindness see these same flowers. Images such as Rubin’s vase – in which observers may see the titular item or two human faces – and that fucking dress (it’s white and gold, facts be damned) prove that even when shown exactly the same object in the form of an unaltered photograph, people’s perceptions differ.

So, what’s that got to do with experiencing performance? Some studies have implied that the areas of the brain that deal with learning to dance also handle language – it may well be that when we watch a performance, we are ‘reading’ and interpreting the dancer’s body each in our own way. The idea of kinesthetic empathy – that we internally simulate the movements we are witnessing on stage – is a fascinating alternative to the notion of a passive, stationary audience, shrouded behind the bouncing glare of the lighting rig. Our individual responses to theatre may not just be separated by the emotive, but actually begin with the visual.

There are plenty of formats and performers challenging and changing the idea that an audience troops in to sit quietly for 3 hours including interval then tube home and bed before 12 thank you very much, but in terms of more ‘traditional’ theatregoing, something that Rosie Wyatt said in an interview when she was performing Blink at the Soho truly stuck with me. She mentioned picking an audience member to fall in love with every night. It was to me both a beautiful and slightly startling idea. The thought that performers are watching us just as intently as we are watching them (and indeed sometimes even more so) was one I had never given much thought to. That doesn’t feel like the power balance. We are the watchers; staring, analysing, absorbing every detail. The show is for us? We are not there to be observed and laid bare? So I went back to ask”¦

Blink, at the Soho Theatre. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Blink, at the Soho Theatre. Photo: Sheila Burnett

“So when I’m talking about ‘watching’ the audience I’m talking about it from my experience of performing direct address dialogue (Bunny, Blink, Spine)… and it is a dialogue, because the audience are the other character in the play. A monologue is a dialogue where the other character doesn’t speak… (or sometimes they do and I tell you what that’s a bloody joy! Looking a teenage girl in the eyes and saying ‘Do you know what I mean?’ and her looking me right back in the eyes and saying ‘Yes’, well that’s my job done then!)

I try to look at the audience through the eyes of the character. Katie [in Bunny] wanted the audience to like her, to think she was cool, to believe her… In Spine I thought it was a similar thing but soon realised that whilst Amy cared what the audience thought of her, that need instantly raised her defences and her attitude to the audience was much colder and harder…

You channel your desire as an actor to want to be listened to, to want to be understood, to want to affect and move the audience etc. through the objectives of the character and it’s with that gaze that I view the audience… So yes, you deliver cheekier lines to the girls who have got the giggles, you ask questions of those wide-eyed open hearted audience members and yes, you can feel frustrated when someone’s clearly not listening and believe me – I can tell! I’ve talked and talked at one person before just waiting for them to stop playing on their phone in the hope that they’ll feel embarrassed when they realise I’ve been watching them the whole time…

I honestly think there are so many people that even when you’re looking right at them, personally, don’t realise that you’re not just rattling off an exact copy of yesterday’s performance; that today’s performance is specifically about interacting with tonight’s audience. I think there are lots of audience members that view you with the same engagement as they would a film…

And then there are some audience members that just seem to glow and radiate and you can’t help but feel drawn to and if I could I’d sit and say the whole thing just to them… When I was doing Blink I used to say that I fell in love with at least one audience member every performance.”

Watching someone is intimate. Being watched feels uncomfortable when it’s coming from a stranger on the tube, and intoxicating when it’s someone you love. In Ira Brand and Andy Field’s put your sweet hand in mine, the audience were seated opposite each other in two rows and, to begin with, we all looked everywhere but at the person opposite us; shoes, ceiling, people further down the row. Andy and Ira coaxed us narratively closer and closer to our seating partners until the end, when we were asked to hold hands with them. They weren’t to be our focal point, we didn’t need to hold their gaze, but the invitation to look was there, and suddenly it was easier. Permitted. We drank each other in with relief, and smiled awkwardly.

That we are regularly granted this intimacy willingly by performers is wonderful and precious and a little frightening. They show themselves to us, undisrupted, sometimes down to the skin. No matter how much anyone wears a character, we are still staring at their body; robed only in context. Theatre has, I think, long been aware of this; even in a 19th century essay (which is very of its time so maybe be judicious about reading the whole thing) mentions the ‘sensuousness’ and ‘lust’ of the audience. A more recent study enquiring into the nature of liveness by interviewing people at Edinburgh’s Traverse found that the word ‘intimacy’ came up, especially with first-time theatregoers.

I’ve even found myself, in search of synonyms so you don’t have to keep reading the word ‘audience’ ten times per sentence, unable to use the word ‘viewer’. It’s wrong, isn’t it? Watching something live isn’t passive. We engage, even from the back of the stalls. We come to watch, and be watched. To look, and look, and forget that we are looking.

Male Speaker exiting auditorium"...

This is the third in a series of columns exploring the art of science and the science of art, and (hopefully) breaking down the idea that they are discrete and unrelated. First Thursday of every month, same bear time, same bear channel!

Strangeness + Charm is a collaboration between Mary Halton and Grace Harrison; you can contact them on Twitter @maryhalton and @_grace_eliz or by emailing [email protected]


Mary Halton

Mary is a writer and critic, interested in performance, science and popular culture. By day, she works in radio drama, by night she studies planetary science at Birkbeck, and by dusk and dawn she writes Exeunt's science blog Strangeness + Charm. For Christmas, she would like a timeturner.



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