Learning From Orson Welles

I posted a video on Facebook of Orson Welles on the Dinah Shore show discussing the nature of audiences – which is still so very relevant to today’s world of web series creation.

Carrie Cutforth-Young took that video and ran with it on her Story Horizon blog and it’s definitely worth a read.

I work with Carrie on the board of the IWCC (Independent Web Series Creators of Canada) and she is a remarkable force of nature with a diamond sharp mind when it comes to all things transmedia. Here’s a snip from her blog:

Orson Welles begins by making a bold declaration:

“Audiences in the real sense of the word are disappearing; there are almost none left. It’s an endangered species.”

Naturally this statement comes as a shock to the studio audience present during this live taping of the Dinah Shore show, but Orson sanguinely explains that the studio audience is not an audience. Because, he states with a bit of cheek, they “got in free.” Welles thus proceeds to address the studio audience directly by stating:

“Not only did you get in free, but you know, as does every studio audience, that you are not here to do anything but to be a member of the cast and help us look good.”

After a round of appreciative applause, Orson adds:

“Have you ever seen a television show where the audience booed and hissed? Or refuse to applaud? It is always a big hit on television, isn’t it? Because the people who come to the show know they are part of the cast and have to help us not look ridiculous.”

Of course this statement was made before the days of Jerry Springer, however Welles’s point regarding the studio audience being part of the cast still stands. So, according to the legendary Orson Welles, then what exactly is a *real* audience? Is the separation between a “real audience” and a “studio audience” (now situated by Welles to be counted with the cast) simply a monetary one? Those who “pay” to get in and those who don’t? On the outset, it might appear to be so, but Orson explains further:

“An audience is a big many headed beast crouching out there in the darkness…waiting to eat us up, or love us, or whatever. And it must be either seduced or tamed, or raped or whatever. And it must be dealt with, because anybody who deals with a real audience, as I have (my goodness think of how long I’ve been in show business: I’ve been hissed and booed at, I’ve had things thrown at me)… Until you’ve had that experience, you don’t understand what dealing with an audience is…”

The key here is that the audience must be dealt with, they must be won over, tamed. This is the function of performance and the performer: to win over the audience (tame the beast). It is the emotional transaction that takes place between the performer and the people sitting in the rows (who do not feel impelled to save the face of the performer) but who are seated in a position of being persuaded to enjoy, to buy in, to swoon. Or to savagely attack.

Carrie then goes on to dissect in greater detail the changing nature of audience engagement in the world of transmedia, citing numerous examples from her vast trove of knowledge on the subject as well as her own professional experience in the field.

I’ve often wondered myself what artists like Welles, Chaplin or Keaton would have accomplished not just with todays tools and toys but also with the different audience relationship which now exists between creators and their community of viewers.

It is interesting to note that Orson Welles made his “little speech” during a time of transition to passive TV audiences in which, in his mind, *real* audiences were almost as extinct as the “dodo.” In the “many years he had been in the show business,” Welles recalled with some nostalgia, being hissed and booed at, things even thrown at him. This recalls to mind the days of Vaudeville and beyond when the audience came armed with tomatoes. It would be interesting to see Welles take on the real audience and the commenters on Youtube videos today. Rather than disappear, the multi-headed beast now often rears its ugly head, unseen, unknown and anonymous in the dark.

Carrie concludes with:

However, much of the interactivity of the experience (which was synchronous) is now static (asynchronous) via the archive of the experience. It is ironic that in the video clip above, Orson talked about how “the little black box full of laughter” (laugh tracks) are comprised of now dead people. However, today the performances are ‘canned’ while the audience is live for the long tail, and their fury and/or ardour can endure long after the curtain has closed.

How can one tame the beast long after the performance has officially ended? The ones who solve the problem of this inverse paradigm either through platform solutions and transmedia strategies but also in managing the expectations of the audience will answer the question of the ages.

Web series and transmedia producers do well to plan for this long tail through a little simple community management foresight putting best social media engagement practices and transmedia strategies in place to keep the beast subdued and sweet for the long shelf life of the property.

Watch the video. Read the whole blog. Well done, Carrie.


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