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Acting With the Audience

Date: Oct 23, 2009


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Take it from Charlayne Woodard: When your audience is your co-star, you have to be ready for anything.

An actor and playwright, Woodard is best known for her series of autobiographical solo shows, including The Night Watcher, now playing at 59E59 in a production from Primary Stages. She never feels she’s performing alone, however. “I use the audience as a scene partner,” she says. “I see them. I bounce off them. I look for the people I call angels, who let me tell them the story and let me live it with them.”

She always finds at least one angel, though she never knows what that connection will bring.

Take a recent performance of The Night Watcher, which follows Woodard’s relationships with the many children in her life. During one scene, Woodard, who portrays multiple characters, reenacted a horrific act of abuse, and it seriously upset an audience angel.

“When I said what happened, she let out with this sound. She said ‘Oh!,’” Woodard recalls. “That whole moment was different because of the way she reacted. The reaction made that moment more visceral. She caused something to happen to me, and when I said my next line, I could hardly speak. It’s like playing tennis, and she hit the ball back to me with spin.”
Just a few nights later, the very same moment got a quiet reaction. No one yelped, so Woodard’s performance changed again.

That’s an awful lot of unpredictability. And sure, no two live performances will ever be the same, but when they’ve rehearsed together, a cast can at least rely on each other to repeat the basics. With every performance of a solo show, however, Woodard goes into free fall, hoping that some kind audience member will give her something to work with.

But she doesn’t mind. “If I’ve done my preparation, my writing and my rehearsal, then I should be okay,” she says. Besides, she also finds something liberating in solo work, both as a performer and as a writer. “Solo work makes me get to the truth,” she explains.

In The Night Watcher, Woodard doesn’t mince words about the mistakes her “children” have made---she calls them her nieces and nephews---and she frankly discusses her own missteps as she learns to be a positive force in a child’s life. “I don’t want to come across as all-knowing Auntie Charlayne, because I’m not. None of us are perfect,” she says.

That’s another thing Woodard gets from a solo show: A unique chance to talk to get audiences involved in a discussion of big ideas. In The Night Watcher, she wants them to use her relationships with children as a way to think about their own. She says, “I want people to think, ‘Am I doing right by my child?’ Or men and women who don’t have children, I want them to look out and see that they could have kids in their lives right now.”

No matter how the angels react during a performance, Woodard knows her ideas have reached them based on how they approach her after the show. “If we do it right, then they feel like they’ve made a new acquaintance,” she says. “I don’t know that we always do it right, but I always know when we do.

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor