Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry

by Michael

I received a very nice email yesterday. Last week, I wrote a blog post for work about the 21st anniversary of the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge (thanks to the Horns for putting me up, by the way!). Someone who works at the Gurdon wrote to say thank you, that they had enjoyed the piece and that the little audio vox pop about scientists’ 21st birthdays I posted with it had actually made her laugh.

Hogarth etching of the various reactions of a theatre audience

“The inside of a theatre and the reactions of different parts” by Hogarth (credit: Wellcome Images)

Perhaps because I developed (initially, at least) as a writer in theatre, I do find myself craving a response to the things I write. Applause, laughter, sometimes a murmur of recognition – these sounds let you know that what you wrote was working for the audience. Even silence could be rewarding: the sweets stayed wrapped, the coughing magically ceased and the audience hardly dared to breathe they were so caught up in the dramatic tension.

Working online and in print is all silent, of course, and in this silence it is impossible to distinguish admiration, apathy or absence of an audience at all.

This is not a plea for more attention or even applause (God forbid). I value the comments, likes, retweets and what have you that I do receive. Even so, I am shy myself of displaying a liking for others’ work: it would be hypocritical in the extreme to ask for more people to ‘like’ my writing regardless of how much they actually, you know, ‘like’ it.

I am just missing the immediacy of a theatre audience. I remember playing Torvald Helmer in a production of A Doll’s House in Cambridge in 1994/5 and I had one line where Torvald asks a visitor if the knitting on the chair in his living room is hers. Playing Torvald was the closest I came to ‘being’ a character. The run was only a few nights but by the end of it I didn’t need to think about what I was going to say or where I had to be on stage – it all came utterly naturally: driven, it felt, by the character I was playing. After A Doll’s House, I started performing in less naturalistic dramas, where my identity as an actor could not be consumed by the character in the same way. Then I started writing.

Anyway, the line was simply: “Is this your knitting?”

It got a laugh on the first night. Torvald has come home a bit tipsy, so I had a bit of licence to play with the line. On subsequent nights I extended the pause between “your” and “knitting” and increased the laugh. It was the first – and possibly only – time that I felt I knew what I was doing on stage, that I was employing ‘craft’, and I realised that only because of the audience’s spontaneous reactions. Where are the reactions to help me develop my craft as a science writer?

Page hits, clicks, and all those metrics: they give you a sense that someone, at least, is showing an interest. But the personal response I got yesterday means so much more.

Perhaps the lesson is that I should continue to dish out sparingly my likes and retweets but, less sparingly, take the time to tell someone my response to what they wrote as well. Maybe you’d ‘like’ to do that too….