Is Breaking the Fourth Wall a Good Thing on Broadway?

The “fourth wall” is often a feared thing on Broadway. It’s that invisible wall separating the audience from the performers, and the spectators from the show-stoppers. It’s the one that constantly has producers and directors wondering if they should try to cross it. Doing so could mean putting on a unique experience that audience-goers will never forget. But doing so badly could also mean ruining whatever magic you’re creating on-stage. So, is breaking the fourth wall a good thing on Broadway?

It really does depend on the show, and in how it’s being done. At the beginning of every performance of Once, the underdog show that just scooped up armfuls of Tony Awards, audience members are invited onstage, to order a drink from the bar in which the play is set. It’s at this time theater-goers can also mingle with the cast of the show, asking questions and bringing accolades — and wondering if they’ll get an answer from the actor, or the character. And while this might be the only audience interaction in Once, and even it’s before the play even begins, it’s done remarkably well. It gives audience members the feeling that they’ve just attended an important cocktail party before the show, and it makes them feel included. Which is, after all, the entire point of breaking the wall in the first place.

Another show currently running on Broadway that successfully breaks the wall is One Man, Two Guvnors. In this show, the constantly hungry Francis shouts out to the audience that he wants some food, after asking one of them to help him move a heavy trunk.

But can all plays break the wall in such a brilliant way? Again, it depends. It needs to be done in a way that includes the audience respectfully. And even if some teasing banter occurs from it, included audience members need to still feel as though they’re an important part of the show because of it.  When that happens, those audience members will leave feeling as though they’ve not only just seen a great performance; but one that also shows the true art of improv, and showcases true raw talent.

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