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The Care and feeding of audiences.

Peter Marks of the Washington Post tosses off a quick “leave me alone” note to Washington theatremakers at the perfect time for me to talk about audiences: opening night of Rubber Rep’s Biography of Physical Sensations.

Marks hates audience participation and I am so firmly in Mr. Marks’ camp that about a year ago I was led to ask why it bothered me so much. I don’t like being touched, I don’t like being asked questions, I don’t want the spotlight on me, no I don’t want to go up on stage… leave me alone. The kicker? I’m a performer! I’m good at all the things they want me to do!

So why does it bother me so much?

I talked to Kirk Lynn of the Rude Mechanicals about this in advance of their recreation last year of Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in ‘69 which promised to contain lots of things I hate including gratuitous nudity and audience participation.

Dionysus in 69 was perhaps the best theatrical experience of my life and my regrets are all for moments I DIDN’T participate in. What is it? Why? What was the difference between other experiences and Dionysus and why am I so excited to see Biography of Physical Sensations tonight?

The answer was simple enough to stupefy me when I realized it in development of the Cambiare piece codenamed “Childhood”.

It’s quality and intention.

Dionysus in ‘69 was a phenomenal piece of theatre by committed, vulnerable artists inviting an audience into the piece with them. In general audience participation is an unrehearsed, tacked on gimmick that essentially works as a power play on the poor audience. Either to expressly embarrass them or to carelessly embarrass them. To include an unrehearsed performer into your show gives you immeasurable power over them and includes no benefit.

Unless they are truly the point.

Dionysus worked because a.) the audience participation made sense in the framework of the show b.) the performers ceded status, c.) the audience participation sections were very well rehearsed, d.) audience participation was 100% voluntary e.) information was given before the participation was requested so it wasn’t a surprise, f.) in most cases the offer and the choice were made by audience members privately before the participation began.

Safe. Sane. Consensual.

A Biography of Physical Sensations is a step beyond that. You make the choice when you purchase the ticket that you will participate. You are a performer from the minute you arrive. You have some choice of intensity (in seat size choice) and co-AD Josh Meyer will be seating the 40 guests with some eye toward making the event pleasurable even for people who experience negative sensations.

But there is an explicit contract of participation.
To recap:

  1. Make it clear as strobes that there will be participation either in style or explicitly.
  2. Give the participants status.
  3. Never make participation involuntary.
  4. Never make involuntary participation about the embarrassment of the audience member.
  5. Have a specific reason for its inclusion.
  6. Give the audience reason to trust you.
  7. Rehearse it. Rehearse it. Rehearse it.

Mr. Marks? Feel better, there really isn’t a ton of audience participation going on in Modern American Theatre, you just remember every painful time it’s been inflicted on you. I’ll buy you a ticket to Biography if you make the trip. You’ll get to see the fourth wall (and the idea of theatre) forcibly torn down by some Bacchae and you won’t miss it.