This post was originally written for the British Council blog
It's a truism that every audience, in every venue is different. This is often as much to do with the kind of room you're performing in as the people gathered in that room. How close are they? Are there more empty seats than bums? Is it a raised stage, or a raked auditorium? What about cabaret-style seating? All of these things materially affect the way the show will be experienced, and in over ninety performances of The Price of Everything I'm yet to learn anything like enough about the effects of these differences to be able to divine anything meaningful about regional differences in responses to the show. All I can say with confidence is that I've never had a bad show in the south west. I don't know why either.
Nevertheless, for my first performance outside of the UK, I was expecting some performative culture shock. Having never been outside of Europe before, I was also expecting some culture shock of the usual sort upon touchdown in India. I've read A Suitable Boy and The God of Small Things. I've seen Slumdog Millionaire. Is that what it's like?
The truth of an international festival is that it's hard to really see the place you're in. Buzzing from hotel to venue to dinner to hotel gave me the sensation of being in a gated community within Mumbai; of seeing Mumbai only really through car windows at a distance. Having my first Biriani in its country of origin doesn't equate to having really experienced that country.
The show was at 2pm Mumbai time; 8.30am UK time, and it was the day after I arrived.
Despite the old truism that the more culturally-specific a work of art, the more universally it speaks, I expected the second half, a shaggy dog story set in my home town of Middlesbrough, to be more of a challenge, so I was relying on the first half to bridge the gap. And at the request of the venue, I'd re-expressed all of the numbers in the show in litres and rupees, so I expected the first half of the show to be clear and easy and accessible.
It's not exactly that it wasn't. It's just that every audience in every venue is different, and never more so than 4500 miles away from home. There were relatively few moments that usually get a laugh that got nothing, but there were enough to be unsettling. Set alongside this were a few moments that normally get a bit of a chuckle that in this case drew a huge guffaw. There was a lot of coughing. Despite going up ten minutes late, audience members were filing in throughout the first twenty minutes of the show. At the moment when I offered the audience milk, a voice called back "is it pasteurised?" I had no idea. I don't read Hindi. The bit where I drink a pint of milk was consequently freighted with a good deal more excitement than usual. I can now say with confidence that it was pasteurised. It was also warm. They don't chill their milk.
The first half was an exercise in constant, urgent re-negotiation of my expectations about my relationship with the audience. I expected this. But expecting to be surprised is not the same as knowing when those surprises will come.
So the second half was going to be even harder, right? Except it wasn't. There were still surprisingly big roars of laughter; there were still a few usually-reliable moments that got nothing (usually moments relying on very idiomatic English; this was good; I was starting to understand what was working). At some point - I don't know when - the audience fell still; the coughing stopped. They were with me.
On balance, it went OK. I'd got the hang of it and I couldn't wait to do it again. Except I'd gone all this way for one show. That was it.
The audience were ludicrously, overwhelmingly warm and generous. People came up to me with effusive praise throughout the fest of the festival. Someone tweeted that she had "irrevocably fallen in love with Daniel Bye" (she has never met me). Two people told me it was "the best play they had ever seen".
There's talk of them bringing me back for a few more shows; for a bit of a tour. I don't know if this is just them continuing to be absurdly nice, but I do hope it happens. I felt like I was beginning to understand something about this new relationship with this totally different audience in this totally different context, and it had nothing to do with the room we were in.
Also, I'd really like to see the place.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will