You can’t sit on your audience’s shoulder.

I saw a show recently that frankly didn’t make much sense.  I just didn’t get it.

Afterwards, I found myself at the same table as the Author, and an informal post-show talkback ensued.  A very honest friend/audience member spoke up and said, “That scene that happened in the garage . . . I didn’t quite get that.  What was the character trying to say when he was asking about the XXXX?”

The Author then proceeded to give a very lengthy and somewhat eloquent explanation of the symbolism of the speech and the metaphors and so on and so on.  When the Author wrapped up this defensive monologue of his own, there was silence.  Then the audience member said, “Huh.  Didn’t quite get that.”

The Author looked a little perturbed and looked around for the rest of us to support him.  But we just kind of shrugged our shoulders and agreed that his statements, however brilliantly sheathed in symbolism they may have been, just weren’t getting through to the audience.

It was a very awkward rest of the evening.

But this convo reminded me of my very first college creative writing class at Johns Hopkins University, which was taught by a guy named Greg Williamson.  I loved this class, and whenever I asked for some extra help, Greg was always there to meet with me before or after class to look at what I wrote and offer some advice.

One day, I asked Greg to read a poem I had been working on.  He read it and then he asked me what it meant, so I explained it in a rush of 18-year-old emotion.  Like the Audience Member above, he said, “Huh. Didn’t get that.”  I started to explain some more and Greg cut me off, and said, “Ken, when someone reads your work, you can’t be there to sit on their shoulder and whisper in their ear what it’s about.  They’ve got to get it on their own.”

Greg was a smart guy, and his ‘on-the-shoulder’ principle applies to playwriting as well.  Brilliant writing is only brilliant when an author successfully communicates his message to his or her audience.

Otherwise, you might as well just write a journal, since no one is supposed to see that but you.


(Got a comment?  I love ’em, so comment below!  Email subscribers, click here, then scroll down, to say what’s on your mind!)



– 85 Days to Godspell!  Read the day-by-day account of producing Godspell on Broadway here.

– Win 2 tickets to The Voca PeopleClick here!


  • Amyleigh1982 says:

    Oh, thank God. I think you finally saw the show I had been talking about. I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t ‘get it’.

  • Craig Brockman says:

    I think a balance should always be struck. You want some/most/all of the audience to “get it” – but you also don’t want to pander. And I think it’s ok if part of your audience doesn’t get it. While you shouldn’t have to worry about sitting on the audience’s shoulder to explain it – you also shouldn’t “have to” pander or alter your work in such a fashion as that it’s universally understood. Art, which Theater is, can be abstract and that’s ok.

  • Greg Williamson knew what he was about. I’m one of those actors who considers the words on the page sacred. No one has the right to change them except the author and no actor has the right to use them to convey something which the words themselves don’t mean. But if one’s responsibilities to the words are total, one’s responsibility to the person of the playwright are not. If the author needs to explain, expound upon or footnote his words in order for them to make the sense intended, then that is not the play. The text is the thing, not the unwritten intent of its author.

  • Shephard says:

    I’ve had that same issue… with film-making too. It’s all creative and great, but if you don’t get it across to the audience, it’s wasted. I enjoyed your take. I’m going to remember that phrase, “You can’t sit on your audiences shoulder.”

  • RLewis says:

    If every line or scene of every play had to make sense on such a conscious level, would we be without some great playwrights (e.g. Beckett, Pinter, Genet, Ghelderode, Artaud, Ionesco, Sartre, Muller, Fornes, Mee, Barker, Wellman, Parks, Kane, etc.)?

  • Paul Mendenhall says:

    Well said. Nothing irritates me more as an audience member than pretentious authors who think being clear is beneath them. Ambiguity is one thing; being deliberately obscure is another.

  • Franco Deliz says:

    Thank you, RLewis. This argument is on of my pet peeves. Are you trying to imply, Ken, that a playwright should aim to balance the intellectual level of its audience?
    The show you might be discussing could have just not been very well written. But it is foolish and naive to say that your audience must “get it”. How would a show like “Waiting for Godot?”, for example, be received by someone who has never been to a theatre before? Would you say that Theatre of the Absurd was sitting on its audience shoulder?
    The truth is that there are better playwrights than others. And the best ones can take the risk to be more ambitious with their approach. I’m grateful they don’t all create for the Jersey Shore generation to “get it” or we’d be in serious trouble.

  • Nick says:

    Excellent advice. Same applies for acting.

  • Rich Mc says:

    A provocative issue, and one in which Producers & Playwrights typically line up on opposite sides of the fence. I tend to agree with tonight’s comments that loath pandering to the lowest common denominator and instead seek to elevate audience understanding, even if it means providing challenges that defy the image that Broadway has reinforced as ‘expected’ entertainment. That said, the author cannot be completely obtuse in getting her/his message across. IMOP, Arcadia and Copenhagen are two examples of Broadway demanding the very most from its audiences and getting it, and thus succeeding brilliantly.

  • alex says:

    yes, fundamentally writers should be writing “entertainment” — theater should be Pop Culture. Shakespeare wrote for everyone. I hate “precious” theater, when it’s so avant guarde (sp?) that no one knows what’s going on. If you’re writing for the masses (and yes, even in a theater that seats 400 — you have masses) then you should be clear, but you could be clear and clever vs being obvious to being on the nose. But yes, people need to know what’s up. It’s fundamentally “show bizness” tell a good story and make it entertaining.

  • Bob Hawk says:

    I’m of the firm belief that one doesn’t have to “get” all of it to have a theatrically compelling experience. I first saw WAITING FOR GODOT when I was 17 years old (in 1955, with Bert Lahr, at the Golden). Certainly, the experience of watching it then is very different from seeing it now. Watching the latest GODOT (Roundabout) at the age of 72 was like looking at something from “the other end” of my life. And there are still mysteries for me within that play. But I’m still haunted by Lahr’s deadly serious yet comedic performance, one that gave me my first intimations of the absurdity of existence. And then there was the sheer excitement of director Alan Schneider’s austere but vibrant take on the play — and the extraordinary performances, especially Alvin Epstein’s brilliant turn as Lucky.
    Today, a like experience could be had at JERUSALEM. I don’t think there’s anyone who gets everything that dwells within its extensive three acts — including the author and the actors. But I was challenged and held captive by the sheer energy of its execution — and left the theater not spent but, rather, invigorated by the journey on which it took me.
    There are certainly plays that have great pretension and little substance, but I certainly don’t need to understand everything that is in a play by Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter (or Baz Butterworth) to a have a viscerally thrilling experience.

  • SkyArtsMgmt says:

    My personal take is that a core function of theatre is to communicate, and the connection created between playwright and audience might be intellectual or on some other visceral level. Its all valid. Leaving the theatre, even if totally mystified, I often feel excited and look forward to having some quiet time to make my own sense out of what I have just seen. Other times, I simply dismiss the entire experience. If the bulk of most audiences fall in this latter case, then I believe the production has failed (and the root cause might not be the only the playwright)
    Its very hard to predict how an audience will respond; but two factors seem key. Dense, highly symbolic, complicatedly constructed theatre works well when the creators remember that the audience will likely see it only once. The audience does not have the option of rewinding, rereading or (in most cases) revisiting the work. This is an inherent limitation of theatre, and the Faustian trade-off of creating a live, immediate experience that is potentially very powerful. Rich, even ambiguous scripts are very satisfying to work with, but ultimately, not all details can be emphasized equally. Thanksgiving with one long-winded relative is enough to teach us all that.
    The other factor which is often ignored by contemporary arts creators is that most of the audience is, by definition, behind you in expertise. Artists are like the kids who practice piano 4 hours a day in comparison with the average school-age dabbler. They leave the others in the dust. Even dedicated theatre goers probably spend less than 10 hours a week involved in theatre, not 10 hours a day. More adventurous work needs some firm handles and a few familiar signposts to be effective. The tendency to create work that is primarily for the admiration of our peers (which in non-profit theatre is a tendency fostered by granting criteria) can also tend to make work beyond the appreciation of a wider public audiences. A production needs to be calibrated to match the intended audience.

  • terry h says:

    Loved this post. Now I have a new writing term “on the shoulder”. Opposite of being “on the nose”. Trick is to find the balance between the two. What we writers try and often fail to do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *