Dramatic literature and theatre is my first field: though I was a fan before I was anything else, I wasn’t a fan studies scholar till later in my career.  But, like many academics, my interest in the subjects I’ve studied borders on fannish interest, and so theatre is one of my fandoms.

Kirsty Sedgwick is a major figure in audience studies, and she’s recently crossed over from academia into more general public intellectual spaces with her latest book, On Being Unreasonable: Breaking the Rules and Making Things Better (Faber & Faber, 2023.)  There’s always been an overlap between fan studies and audience studies, and Sedgwick is a scholar of theatre audiences. Her work frequently questions the rules (explicit and implicit) of being an audience member and asks who those rules exclude: for instance, mothers with small children. In her 2018 book, The Reasonable Audience: Theatre Etiquette, Behaviour Policing, and the Live Performance Experience, Sedwick talks about the ways in which behavior standards can be sexist, racist, ableist, and otherwise exclusionary of the very diversity of audience members that theatre-makers claim that they want to attract.

I thought that I would highlight a different essay from Sedgwick’s oeuvre: 2018’s “How can we talk about ‘thirst’ in theatre?” written for Exeunt magazine.  In it, Sedgwick talks about the ways in which women are seen to enjoy theatre for the “wrong” reasons, stinking up lobbies with their love of Benedict Cumberbatch or Hugh Jackman or Tom Hiddleston or Kit Harrington. Sedgwick describes how  “the fear of female audiences reached its peak recently in the handsome-celebrities-onstage trend – like when the theatresphere nervously anticipated how swarms of Benedict Cumberbatch fans might ruin the star’s 2015 Hamlet with their tardiness and addiction to instagram, or when Tom Hiddleston’s fans were criticized for “colonizing the pavement” after Coriolanus.  Sedgwick argues that “the real mystery is how theatres have been able to get away for so long with using the desires of girls to fill their seats while simultaneously shaming them for it.“ 

Sedgwick also argues that not all forms of thirst are equal, and that while male thirst can be dangerous because of how it keeps women down, “female thirst almost always operates to build men up.” In particular, she cites the ways in which fans work to “give underappreciated actors of colour the attention they deserve.” She quotes Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins of the Thirst Aid Kit podcast talking about John Cho.  The podcasters explain that:

“every time we saw him, we’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s so amazing, he’s so hot.’ We really wanted to give him some shine. We see you–not just because you’re beautiful, but because we see what you’re doing on and off screen, and we want to amplify that.”

Sedgwick concludes that “If male thirst simplifies women to bits of flesh, then female thirst tends to be all about fleshing out the person inside,” and concludes that thirst can be radical. The whole article is worth a read, as is much of Sedgwick’s other work.

–Francesca Coppa, Fanhackers volunteer

On Thirsty Audiences