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Reference Point

I ventured into the West Village on Friday night, and made my way to the Lucille Lortel theatre to see the Red Bull company’s new production of Mac Beth. (Which is very good, and if you’re in New York you should see it if you can.) As I suspected would be the case based on the seat number on the ticket, the usher pointed me to a side seat in the back row of the theater. Oh well, I thought – the Lortel is a small enough theater that all seats provide good viewing, and I could sit back and read my program in relative peace before the performance. A few minutes before the show was scheduled to begin, however, another usher approached me and asked if I’d like to upgrade my seat, to one whose intended occupant had cancelled at the last minute. And thus, I was happily escorted to the front row, a few short feet from the stage.

I had a minute or two to bask in my good fortune, and take a nice close look at the set, before the lights went down and the show began. At that point, since it’s a good show, I was too immersed in the action to really register where in the house I was - until lead actress Isabelle Fuhrman began her first major soliloquy, and I realized she was addressing me. Not in some metaphorical sense, mind you; not in any abstract, “that show really spoke to me” sort of way. No, my front row aisle seat was where the actress had been directed to address that soliloquy, and she was addressing me, personally, looking me square in the eye and focusing all her performer’s energy at me like a laser.

Most actors do this. (Well, not me, because I don’t usually wear my glasses when I perform so the audience looks like a big dark blob to me.) Rather than make empty gestures in some general direction, we select some individual in the audience and direct our actions specifically to them. Sometimes it’s a friend we know will get a good laugh from the sudden attention. Sometimes it’s whoever happens to be in seat A102. They become our reference point, to make sure we have somebody specific to engage with when the other actors aren’t on stage. (Heck, sometimes – not, I must stress, in this production, but let’s say in some show I might have attended back in the mid 90s – the actor directs about a hundred times more energy and engagement when you’re in that reference point seat than when you were actually in a show with them a few months prior. But I digress.)

It’s odd – since your attention is hopefully directed at the performers onstage, you don’t really think about how you come across as a member of the audience. Whether you slouch. How you hold your program. Whether your eye wanders to the lighting grid or some errant patch of dust on the stage. But once you know you’re a reference point, you spring to attention. Your program gets closed and rests meekly on your lap. Your eyes don’t wander. You listen intently.  You make sure the actor knows you're listening intently.

In a sense, since you’re now the actor’s scene partner, you’re a member of the cast.

As I said, this was a very good show, so I guess I was successful in performing my admittedly brief duties as an almost sort-of cast member. For a brief moment, I wondered if, given that I’m a member of Actor’s Equity, I should have received some sort of payment. But then I remembered that my ticket was a comp, so it all balanced out.

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