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.

  • I generally agree with you, Travis, but I don't think your rules always apply quite so … cleanly. A production of PEER GYNT at the Yale School of Drama had a way of sensing its audience without overtly making its participatory intentions clear in the way that Biography does so brilliantly. I was sitting in the front row, and somehow they READ me well enough to know I'd be comfortable helping to lead old Peer up the ramp back to Solveig at the end of the play. One of the reasons this moment was so powerful for me was the way in which it surprised me — I wasn't ready for it (in the way one is READY when participation is clear as strobes), and it left me breathless (cliche but true). Perhaps the common denominator is sensitivity, a sheer awareness of the audience member. Don't just pick anyone, have the sensitivity to pick the right one at the right moment.

  • Absolutely. Hell, my own rules disagree with themselves internally. It's a messy process.

    I think that your experience speaks to quality and rehearsal. I don't think you GET that sensitivity without dealing with a whole BUNCH of audiences.

    That moment sounds AWESOME. How did it work for the rest of the audience?

  • I do Involunteer/Victim work 10 shows a week in the circus.
    You're forgetting the #1 essential ingredient to good audience participation. The audience member must ultimately be celebrated. He/she must win. You can put them through anything but in the end they win.
    Also, in selecting someone the practitioner must select the right personality to go with the bit.
    I would not select someone I sensed (that's a whole other side of the art) was a performer. They get enough celebration. Better to use someone *normal* to mine comic ore with.

  • We're in total agreement except for vocabulary. 🙂

    You say celebrate I say give status, you say 7-10 shows a week I say


    And like I mentioned to Gary that sense for particpant selection is part and

    parcel of that familiarity.

    Is your work bits as part of a larger circus show or the thrust of the show?

    And I can't imagine trying to get through all of a performer's habits in a

    bit have you ever selected one accidentally and had to deal with that?

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  • I am so with you, on points #2-4 especially. It's all about respect – not treating the audience member (and therefore the audience as a whole) as an object to be manipulated, but as a fellow human being that you're in a relationship with. Sharing power – and especially giving the audience member clear signals that he is free to say “no” to participation – establishes trust, because you're now both in a partnership, not in a master/slave dynamic. And as the other commenters added, sensitivity to your audience is key, especially when the participation is more of a surprise.

    Show your audience love. Yes, yes, yes.