The importance of a good audience

Matt Jarosch feels the stage start to shake while he performs in a glass tent with his band. As he plays his  trombone, an audience of around 300-400 people are reciprocating the energy by showing their enthusiasm. This was one of the many performance scenes pre-quarantine, where audience interaction helped fuel the event. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerts, theater performances, sports games  and  all other mass gatherings have been shut down until further notice. Even when these start to open up again, going to a performance may seem questionable because of health concerns. However, the atmosphere of a performance scene can be unforgettable, as it’s a limited amount of time where there’s a unique connection between the performer and audience. 

“We played for three hours with the floor packed,” Jarosch said about that performance. He’s a junior at DePaul’s School of Music, and has played gigs at weddings and other events. As his career developed, he began to understand how an audience can be a significant factor in a performance.

However, he didn’t initially realize this  when he was performing. In high school, Jarosch attended band camp at the Birch Creek Music Performance Center in Door County, WI. It was here where he noticed two saxophonists grabbing the attention of the concert crowd by battling it out in a solo. 

“The atmosphere between the ensemble and audience only encouraged the saxophonists to play with greater energy, a level of playing the band hadn’t seen throughout the whole camp. It was truly a product of the atmosphere between the ensemble and audience, this energy could not have been replicated in just a rehearsal,” Jarosch said. 

This momentum was then realized on his end at the glass tent venue. The performance was a part of a wedding in Kansas City and was set up outdoors. As the stage began to shake, Jarosch could barely read his music. That was a sign that the band was doing well. 

“What was odd was that I was far from tired after the gig ended. I felt that this was all to do with the audience reciprocating their energy back to us,” Jarosch said. 

However, like jazz performances, theater productions also thrive on audience reactions. Damon Kiely, the chair of performance at DePaul’s Theater School had just finished directing the 

Shakespeare play “Measure for Measure.” Kiely wanted the play to have a focus on the audience as he noted that Shakespeare wrote his plays for audience and actor interaction. 

“The actors would speak to the audience, improvise, and use them as sounding boards, Kiely said. 

He had wanted to take this to a whole other level with his production of “Measure” by creating an intimate space where the audiences and actors could be in the same room as it is a symbolic representation of the plot. It highlights how a young man comes into power and immediately starts to abuse his position. Then when a young woman pleads for her brother’s life, the man in power makes the offer: “If you sleep with me, I’ll let your brother go.”

The play also encompasses how the young man is caught for his actions, but still asks to marry the woman. She is then silent for the rest of the performance and Kiely would have her sit in the audience for them to further digest the narrative. Because of this dynamic, Kiely said that he wanted them to witness what would happen in these rooms of power. 

“When COVID-19 hit, we almost gave up on our show, but we rallied,” Kiely said. 

The show was going to go on as a live radio version broadcasted on Zoom. With this version, Kiely explained how the actors were only able to be heard with some accompanying sound effects. The cast worked with this guiding question in mind: What would the audience need to hear to make sense of the play? 

As the Zoom curtains opened, Kiely found it to be an odd experience, as he couldn’t see anyone in the audience, but he knew there was a presence due to the names showing up on the screen. At the end of the play, the audience unmuted their microphones, turned on their videos and cheered for the actors. This then followed with a talkback discussion. Even though the production worked out well, Kiely hopes for more immediate feedback in the future. 

“I’m hoping to find other platforms to use so that we can get more immediate audience response. It’s so crucial to any live performance to get feedback from those watching or listening,” Kiely said. 

As demonstrated by Kiely’s experience, audience members can see when performers are going the extra mile for them. However, it can also be a chance where the audience can just lose themselves due to the atmosphere that’s provided. Crystal Hellwig is a senior at DePaul and has seen alternative band The 1975 a couple times with a crowd that’s always filled and excited. 

“When you can just get lost in the crowd and not care, it’s always a good time,” Hellwig said. 

However, everytime Hellwig has seen The 1975, she always notices their engagement with the audience. In between songs, they make small talk with the crowds and speak to them after the show. 

As every performance is unique, there is always the common goal of satisfaction. When support is shown, there is a confidence developed within. Noah Festenstein is a senior at DePaul and discovered this first during his career as a varsity wrestler in high school where he competed in front of large groups. 

“You feel a specific kind of energy in front of an audience, and that gives me more of a reason to compete and give them a show,” Festenstein said. 

This momentum allowed Festenstein to analyze his performance as a wrestler and what measures he needed to take to improve. 

However, he has also experienced this on the flip side as well. Festenstein has attended every major sport in North America and has noticed a commonality amongst all of them. As the audience provides energy, which helps the players perform at a higher level. 

Just like stages shake from audience momentum, so do baseball stadiums. When Festenstein attended a National League Champion Series game between the Cubs and Dodgers in 2016, the energy could be tasted from anywhere in Wrigley Field, which was then amplified when Miguel Montego hit a glam slam to victory. 

“Undoubtedly, that was the best experience I’ve had being at a sporting event,” Festenstein said. 

Yet, the question is, as venues begin to open again, will these experiences be the same? 

Festenstein hopes that things will get back to normal slowly but surely, even as audiences begin to take precautions. Hellwig also aspires to see audience interaction remaining the same as the crowds and interaction are a significant part of the event. 

“Packed audiences and waiting in crowded lines is just a part of the experience of going to a concert,” Hellwig said. 

However, the pandemic has also given some performers to shift their views on how they see audiences. Jarosch said that he realizes that the most important perspective to keep in mind is the audience. 

“Going forward I hope to think more clearly about how to create a shared experience and build a relationship with the people I’m playing for,” Jarosch said.