The Art of Being a Spectator

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

By Isabelle Kessler

As an artist making a living through theatre for 35 years, the question of the spectator has been in my thoughts during my entire career. Do we, artists, have to please the audience?

Is the spectator a consumer, a client we have to seduce?

Commonly, we associate the spectator with passivity. Why?

As an artist, aren’t we first a spectator?

Our societies celebrate artists, “emitters,” and discount spectators, “receivers,” creating a hierarchy I would like to put in question.

What is art and what is not art?

Difficult question, almost a conundrum: no satisfactory answer. In this paper, I wonder if art may not reside in the senses of the spectator, a natural gift which has to be worked on, like all artistic gifts.

I will finish this introduction, digressing with few words about interactivity and art:

Interactivity, a word in fashion for the last few decades, does not necessarily imply manipulation of crowds and big screams. The relation between the audience and the stage, in live performances, is very important. Too often, when a director or an actor says that the audience is a big part of the quality of a performance, it is taken as coquetry. It is not. The audience in a live show has fifty percent of the responsibility in the interaction. Is a show interactive? Always, even if we do not push a button, or scream on command.


The spectator

To be a spectator is the first function we have in life. It is natural even before being cultural. A baby hears and sees, then classifies, compares and ascribes meanings according to the feelings it gets from the signs perceived. A baby is the perfect spectator.

We, adults, do know that to learn how to deal with our feelings and emotions is the most difficult task in our lives. When we are spectators of the arts, we can take feelings seriously without being self-centered. We can tame our emotions and also develop a wide spectrum of them, sharpening sensations and developing acuities. For that, we need risk taking, curiosity, memory and words.

The entertainment industry has generated a more lazy definition of “spectator,” based on distraction from boredom or worries. Nowadays, the most common understanding of the activity of a spectator is “passivity.”  However, it is a mistake to minimize the intense work of being a spectator: to hear, see, feel, decipher, understand and associate, evaluate, analyze, compare one’s reaction with the rest of the audience. There is nothing passive about it.

Is it the way we watch TV, mostly with low commitment, which engenders the notion of passivity? The verb “watch” has evolved from a dynamic action to a passive one. “What are you doing? Nothing. I am watching TV.” “I deserve it” is very often the excuse to shut down our brains and reach for the remote control.

The danger of passivity nests in the absence of vigilance. We won’t be alert to defend ourselves from emotional invasions like violence and fear. They will penetrate our brain, bypassing our sleepy “thinking guards.” The absence of coherent context, or frame, will damage the processing of emotions, and the boundary between fiction and reality can blur.


What are the differences between the verbs “to see”, “to look at” and “to watch?”

I propose:
-    “To see” is NOT to be in the moment; to see is the action of seeing, but we can be thinking about something else. Even the figural meanings “I see” and “I see what you mean” implies ”I understand where you are,” not “I am with you.“
-    “To look at” has a focus we do not find in “see,” and includes an analytic or critical distance.
-    “To watch” means initially to be “on guard,” to pay extreme attention and simultaneously means the opposite, for example, watching a bird with curiosity/interest, or the opposite, watching TV with a lack of interest, boredom or tiredness.

A spectator uses the three verbs at the same time: we “see” because we are in the action; we “look at” because we focus; we “watch” because we are not the “subject,” therefore we have distance, most of the time.

We could have the same process of thinking about the differences between a witness, an observer and a spectator. All three are in the action of seeing, but are engaged differently.

Isn’t it interesting to realize that, now, most of our information reaches us through a screen, which is, by definition, a division or a concealment!?...

Anyway, if we do not make sense of what we see or hear, the most thoughtful program will be empty for us. The culprit is not the screen but ourselves.

The importance of the aftermath of a “spectator moment” is almost as important as the moment in itself. To speak about what we saw or heard, to put into words something other than “I like it” or “I do not like it,” will open the possibility to solve contradictions, to refine our position, to situate ourselves and it fixes the memory.


“What is the point?” versus “What does that mean?”

“What is the point?” is not really a legitimate question about art. “What does that mean?” for myself, for the others, in the big scheme, are more legitimate questions.

If we consider that a spectator is not a fast consumer or a client who must be pleased, freedom opens to the spectator. The metaphors of nourishing the mind, “art” being a meal and “entertainment” being a snack, illustrate the necessity of digestion. To continue with the metaphor of food, if a piece of art is a meal, we should not wait to be spoon-fed: we have to help ourselves.

We can dislike certain foods, but they will give us elements we need. Are our tastes the same forever or do they change? Vegetables or mustard, for example, are wonderful or awful, depending on our age: we like them, we hate them, we like them, and… so on.

Questions concerning a show, a piece of music or a painting, could be classified in three realms:

The object of our attention
- What was the subject?
- What was the theme? How was it different from the subject?
- How did the character(s) evolve?
- What was the context, the historical, sociological, geographical frame?
- How or is it relevant?

The personal impact
- What did I feel?
- Was I touched? By what? If not, why? What would have touched me more? How?
- Did something upset me? In what way?
- What did I understand?
- Did I learn something? What?
- Was I available at the beginning? At the end?
- Did I lose my interest, where? When did it come back? How?

The collective experience
- How did I feel the audience?
- Was I disturbed by them?
- Was I apart or a part of the audience?
- Did I feel sympathy or empathy or nothing?
- I could not hear? Why? Responsibility of the actor or the acoustics of the room, or a raucous audience?
- I could not see: my place? A mistake in set conception? The person in front of me?

These lists are, obviously, not exhaustive. Everyone should construct one’s own grid of analysis.

We are so accustomed, because of publicity, to expect to be pleased by what we buy or consume, that the concept of struggling with and through thoughts and feelings is frightening: but this concept is the very soul of art.

An artist has a natural gift, which she/he has pushed to the level of excellence.

To be a spectator is a natural gift, which we should push to the level of excellence.


Isabelle Kessler is a creator, director and actress, as well as a writer and member of SACD, Society of Authors and Dramatic Composers. Native to France, Kessler moved to New Mexico in 2000. Before becoming an American citizen in 2011, Kessler was awarded a prestigious American 0-1 Visa for individuals with extraordinary ability in their field.