People are still shaking their heads about the Will Smith-Chris Rock Oscar slap heard across the world. But what no one is talking about is how the change in staging contributed to the kerfuffle. It was a matter of proxemics.
Proxemics is the amount of space people establish between themselves and others and it plays a vital role in communication and in this case reaction to that communication. Like much of non-verbal communication, it is not something we consciously factor in when interacting with others. Most awards shows have a traditional stage with a number of steps leading up that separates the members of the audience from the presentation space. Not this one. The stage was low, there were many more cameras than usual, and the most important members of the audience were grouped around in front in an informal living room style. There was no hiding for anyone in this setting.
People react to space instinctively. An open workspace with no closed offices changes the way people interact than they would in a more traditional rabbit warren building of closed doors off of long corridors. The use of space sets a tone and expectation. In the case of the intimate set design of the Academy Awards, we saw what happens when the traditional fourth wall of the stage disappears.
There is a questionable but time-honored tradition of hosts and comedian presenters making fun of big stars at the Academy Awards. In the 2022 setting, however, the personal elements of jokes took on an added element of personalness as the stage design diminished the separating influence of the fourth wall.
By the second hour of the long show, people’s attention started to lag—especially true for those visible audience members. Putting Chris Rock on late into the second hour of the show was clearly intended to give a comedic jolt and boost the energy of the program. By this time, however, the live audience, especially those close to the stage, were visibly showing signs of discomfort and nervousness in anticipation of the major awards. With tensions rising, Rock, by his own admission, made a tasteless and lame GI Jane 2 at the expense of Jada Pinkett-Smith. While comedians make questionable jokes all the time, the worst reaction is usually just a collective “Really?” This one had a different impact and outcome.
This is where proxemics created an entirely different set of outcomes. Without the physical distance of a conventional stage set-up with steps leading up to the presenters, there was no physical barrier for Pinkett-Smith’s husband Will Smith to consider while wrestling with his anger over the insult. The result was that he gave in to his impulses, and without a beat simply walked the 10-15 steps over to Rock and slapped him–hard. The rest, as they say, is history; complete with a tearful Best Actor acceptance speech for King Richard, including Smith tying his performance in the film into a rather pretzel-like defense of his actions.
We in no way condone such an outburst, but did it all have to happen in the first place? Certainly, the joke could have been left on the cutting room floor. And Smith could have kept his own angry counsel. In a traditional Proxemics staging, the ability for Smith to act in the moment would have been stifled. With the intimate staging and spacing, however, the stage literally was set, and millions of people saw and heard the result.
Proxemics is a powerful force that can be used to create an impactful lasting impression. But as we saw on Academy Awards night, it comes with risks that we ignore at our peril.