The fourth wall

On the balance of power between performer and audience.

Part II in a series. Part I here.

In old-fashioned theatre, actors learn to pretend that there is a ‘fourth wall’ that seals them off from the audience. To create the illusion – for themselves as much as for the audience – that they are the characters in the play. That the play is reality and the audience is not present. Modern plays (and tv shows, and books) love to toy with this wall. By having the actors step off the stage for instance, walking among the audience, still pretending that the spectators are not there. Or by letting the wall suddenly disappear, when a character addresses the audience directly.

image: Adam breaks the fourth wall in Hans Baldung Grien’s Adam und Eva (1531)
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Even when actors are pretending the fourth wall is firmly there, shielding the reality of their characters from a living, breathing audience, the actors cannot shut themselves off completely. The audience is always there, audibly, visibly. Their breath makes the air more stale; one might smell their perfumes and deodorants even on stage.

An audience is many, and an audience is one. It can have a mood. An audience can feel welcoming, or stony. It can be a wild current to set your canoe on, or a refreshing swim on a hot day. The mood on the stage and the mood in the room mingle and collide, shaping each other like intelligent, gaseous animals.


When you give a presentation at work or at school, there is also an invisible boundary between you and your audience, a tacit agreement that each of you remains in place: you in front of them, and they in their seats. It feels uncomfortable when someone leaves the room without telling you why (‘sorry, bathroom!’). And you would feel very uncomfortable if someone suddenly got up and stood next to you.

We adhere to these social norms to feel safe, as speakers and as audience members. Because although you might feel vulnerable standing in front of your listeners, they are vulnerable, too.

image: Will Smith crosses several lines at the Oscars, March 27, 2022
The emotional pressure inside must have been phenomenal.
photographer: Ruth Fremson for the New York Times
via Wikimedia Commons

This is immediately evident when you move closer to them. It feels like a comfort zone exercise, where you move closer to someone, and closer, and closer, until they say ‘stop’. There is an invisible line around a person. A circle that they draw around themselves and would rather you not penetrate. An audience draws that line as a collective, too.

Now you, the speaker, step over the invisible line, into the audience’s private space. People instinctively hold their breath. Some might even look worried: what is she going to do? Some are open when you approach, curiously expectant; others hide anxiousness behind a facade of cool amusement. You can’t touch me.


And yet, I can. Some people are doing other things on their phones or laptops, bored or distracted. When I approach, they clutch their screens to their chest. I am not private on the stage, in the sense that everyone can see what I am doing. The audience is private in that sense. And an audience member expects you to respect that privacy.

There is a balance of power here. When you don’t respect the performer on stage, they might decide to make you feel your vulnerability, as you have made them feel theirs.

image: Hans Teeuwen in Hard en Zielig, 1995
Teeuwen is a Dutch comedian who loves to cross the line and make the audience a bit nervous. Here, in his first show, the audience had no idea what was coming when he hopped off the stage.
still from Teeuwen’s youtube channel

I used to enjoy that, especially with difficult audiences. To wake them up with my clear voice, to hypnotise them with rhythmical sentences, to win them over with jokes. To show them I did not have to be vulnerable. And that they were vulnerable as well, pinned in their seats. As I grow older and more experienced, as I study other speakers and performers, I find that I don’t enjoy that anymore, playing with domination. That I need something different from the audience. Connection.

The key to true connection is an open channel. Both speaker and audience need to be open to receive what the other is sending. But most people feel vulnerable when they open up, and therein lies the rub.

three degrees of openness

What does it look like, what does it feel like, when speaker and audience connect?  You can go see and feel for yourself: here are three performers who attempt to connect, with varying degrees of openness on their part.

First up, motivational speaker Tony Robbins. The Netflix documentary I am not your guru shows Robbins in his exhausting seminars, as he tries to help people change. Exhaustion is a tool in this type of setting: it makes the audience vulnerable, more open to confession and suggestions. More open to change. And although there are a few moments in the documentary when Robbins seems to truly connect with an audience member, most of the time his ‘openness’ appears to be carefully rehearsed and controlled. He explicitly talks about his lonely, complicated childhood, his insecurities, and how he overcame them. He has transformed himself into our culture’s image of a manly man, a mighty muscle man, who uses his big body and big voice and big, stormy emotions to lift people up…

…and to push them down.

image: Tony Robbins with a severely abused woman, and with a timid man
stills from the Netflix trailer for I am not your guru (Joe Berlinger, 2016)

Second is Aziz Ansari, a standup comedian whose dreamy career was disrupted by a public accusation of sexual misconduct. Here is a man who has experienced the audience’s worst judgments explicitly. He made a show out of the experience, Right now (2019) in which he tried to talk about the volatile relationship between performer and audience. It is a tense performance. His defensiveness, discomfort and remorse sometimes feel too rehearsed, and sometimes genuine.

image: Aziz Ansari in Right now  (Spike Jonze, 2019), Netflix

Ansari had the courage to climb back on stage after falling from grace. He tried to connect by sharing some of his more private, complex thoughts on the experience. Performer Derek DelGaudio, my third example, went much further. For his show In & of itself, he decided to deeply explore the balance of power between performer and audience. To make it explicit. And to open himself to receiving the audience, in its fullness – in my mind the hardest and bravest thing one can do on stage. (The show ran from 2016 to 2018, and was made into a documentary.)

The show’s theme is identity: the way we present ourselves, the way we are perceived and judged by others. DelGaudio, a magician by trade, gives the audience plenty of opportunities to question their perceptions. The result is a mix of force and vulnerability; of great skill, experience and risk. It is not easy to watch, even on screen. Sometimes I wondered if this or that boundary should have been crossed. Still, as I see it, performer and audience were rewarded for their efforts with something rare: a moment of truth.

image: Derek DelGaudio in front of his audience, visibly moved
still from the trailer for the documentary In & of itself (Frank Oz, 2020), Hulu/DisneyPlus

In an interview with the New York Times, DelGaudio gives some insight into what he was trying to do – and what happened then:


I’ve been trying to free myself from the burden of secrets and from the burden of feeling so attached to an identity that I adopted early on in life — without even realizing that’s what I was doing — which was of a deceiver, a magician, a trickster. (…) Despite what the movie shows, which is a very emotional arc, that was not part of it for me. I never tried to make anyone cry. I never tried to have a reaction. I just wanted to create the gestures, say the things I came to say, and let them interpret it however they want. I think that empathy is weaponized, often, especially by magicians, in a way that is not necessarily healthy or generous.

‘Derek DelGaudio and the great unburdening of secrets’, Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Times, March 3, 2021.


Part III here.

main image: Odilon Redon, Les yeux clos (1890), Musée d’Orsay, via Wikimedia Commons