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Pen Woods

‘Hosts and Enemies in the Theatre: The Audience as Stranger’

In this paper I consider the ways in which directors and dramaturgs construct the audience as friend or stranger, how they practice hospitality and extend friendship to audiences in productions but how audiences might also be treated with suspicion and even hostility. The power dynamics in the theatre are negotiated and renegotiated at different venues and by different practitioners, performances and different audiences. The terminology of the ‘house’ in the theatre industry - ‘the house is open’, the ‘house lights are up’ - is not merely a convention. Determining who is the host in this house and who the guest, and how the dynamics and power play of hospitality, obligation and reciprocity play out, is a formative aspect of the performance event. Jacques Derrida, amongst others, has noted the etymological and semantic closeness of host, hospitality and hostility.
The course of Greek tragedy was altered in 511 BC, argues Odai Johnson in his recent book Ruins: Classical Theatre and the Archaeology of Memory and Ancient Greece (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2018). Phyrnnichus stages The Fall of Miletus, about the annihilation of the island population of Miletus, whom Athens had sworn to protect from the Persians (a play that hasn’t survived). According to many the Athenian audience were reduced to tears en masse; these were tears of acute distress, shame and guilt. The Miletes were friends and fellows, and not strangers (xenoi). Phrynnichus was severely punished for causing this suffering with his play and fined a preposterous amount of money; the play was banned from ever being staged again. Johnson argues this event altered the path of Ancient Greek tragedy. It might be instructive to watch and be moved by suffering and feel pity, but this was dangerous - even damaging - if it was too close to home. From that point on, tragedy would stage ‘strangers’ whilst the audience would be hosts and friends.
Here I consider how late capitalist practices of international touring figure in this language and ecology of friends and strangers, the known and the unknown, the cared for and the suspicious. Directors of tours construct and negotiate the audience as stranger, friend and/or host. I examine surveillance and security practices at venues responding to ‘terror’ events and how these contribute to a complex dance of positioning audience as enemy and stranger, even whilst venues exercise tropes of hospitality and welcome and employ discourses of community and care.

Penelope Woods is a Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary University of London.