Words, Emotions, and How Your Audience is Feeling

Many’s the time I’ve sat in readings and development workshops and been asked, “Who is your audience?” It’s one of my least favorite questions. What am I supposed to say? “People with good taste”? How do I choose to experience my entertainment? Based on what I want to feel. I suspect I’m not alone in this. When you pick up a novel, what makes you choose Bridget Jones instead of H.P. Lovecraft? (Or vice versa?)

I don’t know the traditional demographic features – age, gender, race, hair color – of an audience that will like my work. I have a pretty good idea of the kinds of books they read, the characters they enjoy, the stories and themes that stir their emotions. But their salaries? The number of kids they have? Isn’t that why market research was invented?

“Who’s your audience” is a reductive question. It assumes that once an audience is identified, the play will change to suit that audience. I would argue that during the development process, the goal should be to create the strongest work possible - then decide how to market it to the public.

Instead, why not ask, “How should your audience feel”?

This question asks a writer to focus on the core of their piece – a scene, a line, a play – the magnitude of the area under examination can change. When he says this line, how does your audience feel? When this plot point unfolds, how should your audience feel?” Consider the description of the desired emotion a writer’s “true north” – the dialogue, actions and scene blocking are the darlings one must kill to uncover the final version within one’s draft.

Try explaining emotion without emotion.

Feelings and language don’t always have an easy intersection. Remember on TNG when Data asked someone to explain to him what “Love” was? Nobody could do it without referring to other emotions.

This reminds me of a playwright’s task:

A playwright must communicate emotions, using only words – and written words at that, words devoid of intonation or inflection (these will be re-inserted later, by an actor). Playwrights have to write in such a way that the words “come alive” when performed. Our work requires not only a solid command of language, but also a keen sense of spatial relations and an understanding of the physics between two bodies, the way words hang in the air when spat or wailed or whispered from a performer’s mouth.

Playwrights must also understand how actors and directors read, understand, and speak language. To this end, if we want our work produced accurately, we must have an exhaustive understanding of punctuation – not how it is written in AP-Style English, but rather the way in which readers interpret dashes, commas and whitespace on a page. (How else to ensure that your precious pauses, interruptions, sighs and intonations are understood as necessary – instinctively – by your performers?)

In the end, a playwright must write a technical manual for an performance that they’ve never seen, and communicate their inspiration – their emotion – in such a way that the blueprint can be picked up by anyone in the world and that emotion (despite the game of “telephone” that has taken place) can be reproduced. Audiences respond to Shakespeare because they still feel the emotions he crafted into his plays, not because the literal thees and thous and therefores move them to tears.

It’s an artist’s goal – in any medium – to make their audience feel something. Whoever that audience is. However large, however small. Maybe it would be more productive – in drafting and development both – to treat the emotional journey as the underlying architecture of a story, then craft the superstructure of lines, scenes and characters around them.

After all, what do we tell a fellow theater practitioner when someone gets offended and storms out of their show? “If they felt that strongly about it, you were doing something right.”

Edit: For the record, if James Franco is part of my audience, I’m a happy girl. 

Other Edit: I tweaked the title of this post after publication.