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Are Concerts Theatre? Is Theatre A Concert? (Thoughts on Audience Engagement)

Being a student of theatre, I attend a fair amount of plays. And being a college student, I attend a lot of concerts. Sometimes, the line between them is clear. Other times, I come out of a concert feeling as though I’ve seen a piece of theatre, and then I’m forced to ask myself: what defines theatre? Having actors? Using the spoken word? Does it need to self-identify? Does theatre even require definition?

I’ve been an attentive enough member of the artistic community to acknowledge that any definition of theatre has exceptions. Hanne Tierney is an East-German born artist/performer/theatre creator who identifies her own niche as “theatre without actors”. This theatre includes classics such as Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and an adaptation of Edwin Abbott’s allegorical novel Flatland, created and “manipulated” by Tierney herself—all using design concepts that allow a performance without performers.


Forget language as a defining factor of theatre—Silent Theatre won the NY Fringe Festival’s 2006 award for “Outstanding Play” for LULU, a black and white and completely silent staged performance.

So, does it need to self-identify? Or can the audience decide for themselves? My most notable experience of this question was with Georgia-based rock band Of Montreal. Their concerts are famously theatrical, described as a “photographer’s nightmare” for all the light, motion, and spectacle that makes the experience entirely impossible to capture on film.


Oh, hey. Is that it? Is the defining factor of theatre that it is impossible to experience when recorded? An Of Montreal performance has all the heart, talent, specificity and attention of an excellent play, as well as the spectacle and unquestionable theatricality that comes with partial nudity, totem-pole skeletons, crowd-surfing luchadors and confetti cannons. It inspired the same sort of critical discussion between my friends as we walked home as any good piece of theatre, but there was one thing that it offered that I’ve never quite seen matched by any play. This is the same quality that less theatrical concerts have, but even the best piece of theatre can’t stand up to—audience engagement.

Even in the most famous/expensive/toe-tapping Broadway shows, I’ve not often had the experience of audience members standing, jumping, cheering and joining the performance. Of course, in the vast majority of dramatic performances, it would be inappropriate to scream over the actors and dance like a madman instead of keeping your eyes glued to the stage. In Jason King Jones’ production of Peer Gynt, one scene riled up the audience so much, we simply couldn’t keep silent (cue squealing, “Oh my GOD”s, and plenty of head-bopping and clapping along). It was a rock concert scene. And the way it had audience members bouncing on the edges of their seats is something I’ve never seen matched. The impulse running through the audience was to jump up and dance—but nobody quite did, because we were still at a play.

Generally, people like concerts. Especially young people. Fair statement? I think so. The energy is unmatched and there’s often a present feeling of audience unity—it’s as though the entire room is performing and interacting together, not separated by the talent on-stage and the viewership below.

I believe that a stronger sense of audience engagement in the performance space will create a stronger love for the theatre. To give an audience a place and sense of involvement will give them ownership of the work and allow them to form stronger opinions and inspire critical thinking about theatre—after all, if it’s partially yours, you may feel more freedom to comment on its validity, effectiveness, and value in the community. I want to foster a more critical and engaged theatre-going audience. Spectacle could be the answer, as could music, but I think there’s another, less tangible factor—audience freedom. The freedom to dance, the freedom to sing, the freedom to jump up and down. It’s a difficult environment to create when it’s not the assumed state, but I think an awareness of audience engagement is the first step to creating a more lively and attentive theatre.


One comment on “Are Concerts Theatre? Is Theatre A Concert? (Thoughts on Audience Engagement)

  1. I think an important line to be drawn here is where entertainment ends and drama begins. Hannah Arendt said that “Theatre is the political art par excellence… it is the only art whose sole subject is man in his relationship to others,” and I tend to agree(“The Human Condition”, 1958). Dramatists are one of the only arts whose subject at the center of the study is the way human beings relate to themselves, to others, or to institutions.
    Now the question is, are these concerts doing the same thing? Is there a relationship being examined, hopefully fruitfully, by the light and color of Of Montreal, or is it for spectacle and entertainment? Being unfamiliar with them myself, I can’t say. From the concerts I’ve been to though, while beautifully lit, played, and wonderfully designed, I wouldn’t say they are Theatre, simply theatrical.
    As you said though, there are always exceptions, and there are surely moments when concerts can become pieces of drama, but to talk about it any length we would need to pin down what drama IS. It can’t be about form, because that has changed so often through the ages. What would you suggest as a definition of theatre? I personally like Arendt’s.

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