I was reminded recently of a play I once saw. It was a good production of a beautiful script. The acting was decent, the staging more than adequate. But one element came near to ruining the entire experience for me: the director had chosen to have various ambient sound effects (street noises, music, wind, etc.) playing continually under almost every scene. It’s possible that for some in the audience, these effects enhanced the action and helped to define the scenes. For me, it was like the annoying buzz of an insect which you can’t kill, a faucet drip you can’t fix, a clock you can’t stop from ticking. It was always there, and it made listening to what was important a much more difficult job.
Why would a director deliberately put such an obstacle in the way of the audience’s ability to hear and understand the play? I suspect that 1) the sounds were not added until very close to performance, and 2) the director already knew the script so well that (s)he couldn’t tell what was being obscured. What a shame.
At afO, our goal is that every aspect of what’s happening onstage is working together to convey the message, in a way which the audience finds entertaining, coherent and significant. In addition, dramaturgy in the program provides useful background, the director’s pre-curtain speech sets the tone and relaxes the audience, helping them settle in to listen. Beyond that? We pray that we have communicated well.
Unfortunately, it is a fact–though we may not like to admit it–that no matter how compelling a performance is (whether music, dance or theater), we cannot guarantee that the audience ISN’T listening to background noise instead. Sometimes, humans are our own noisemakers. The smallest word, sound, gesture, may start a rabbit trail of thought which becomes a running commentary. To-do lists, hard conversations, worries, the distraction of not being completely comfortable, all add to that mental buzz which keeps one from truly listening.
As a Christian, I have to ask myself, ‘Does background noise affect my ability to listen to God?’ When it comes to hearing what’s really important, how often do I make a space of quiet and stillness so that I have the right conditions in which to listen intently? Throughout my life, I’ve found that unless I make a disciplined habit of quieting my mind, it is nearly impossible to turn off those mental murmurings.
God is a gentleman, not a tyrant. He doesn’t force us to pay attention. But He provides all the tools we need, and the instructions for how to use them. Our job, often, is simply to listen. It may not be easy. Desiring to listen is the first step. Settle in to your seat, dim the lights, focus on the story at hand. What is it trying to say to you? What might be your response? What will you take away with you? These are good questions for any audience to ask.