The Rules of Engagement

Shirley here.

We’re late to the discussion circulating around the Washington, DC theater blogosphere regarding the use of audience participation as a theatrical tool.

Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks started it off with a blog entry for the Post, in which he is decidedly thumbs down on the device. I read the piece, chuckled because it made me think of one of my favorite Onion articles of all time, and moved on. (Okay, if you haven’t, you have to go and read the Onion piece now. I haven’t read it in about a year, and it once again made me laugh so hard I choked on my vitamin water. “Their makeup looks way scarier under normal lighting,” one theater patron whispered. “Especially that one kid playing the old man.”)

Others were a bit more riled up than I was by the “manifesto”, as you can see in the comment thread. And then even more agitated when some local theater folks actually agreed with Marks. But here’s the thing. I kind of agree as well.

And let it be said–sometimes audience involvement succeeds in doing everything it sets out to do. It allows audiences to be more engaged and more moved; less complacent and less passive. But other times, “audience participation” is a convention that can be over-used, inappropriately-used, and sloppily-used. Now, it is not on my list of theater conventions that I think are so over-used, inappropriately-used and sloppily-used that I am usually completely taken out of the theatrical experience when I see them on stage (For the record, that list is: the use of slow-motion movement, the use of flashlight as lighting instrument, and the use of whispered word repetition from an ensemble.) But like any tool that grows dull with use, audience participation may need a bit of a rest to maintain its effectiveness.

Of course, we’re not that far out of Fringe season. Wholly moly audience participation!

And I write that, and I think, I’m a total hypocrite. Because I have directed fringe shows that totally depended on audience participation. But I’ll be the first to admit, it didn’t always work. Because without the right crowd, without the right energy, without the right time slot? It’s like we’ve not cast the right actors in their roles. And it totally isn’t their fault. They never got a complete job description.

It’s interesting to me how many actors hate audience participation (from either side of the equation). My brother could not be more comfortable on stage, in front of people, in a rehearsal room, in an audition–but I’ll always remember attending De La Guarda’s Villa Villa, shipped in to Union Square from Argentina, with him in the late 90s. The group describes their inspiration for creation as such: “Everything started with an uncontrollable desire to explode, to expand, to choose a space and take complete hold of it, while leaving nothing out of the game. The tide produced by the audience is a fundamental part of the emotional upheaval of this show, where everything is fragile, everything is changeable except our tempests. The victim is reality. There are no laws of nature in what’s fantastic; there is neither logic nor stability.” Come to think of it, I kind of love that mission statement. But what I remember most about the show? My brother hugging the walls of the theater to avoid being pulled out onto the floor by one of the writhing, sweaty, muscular Argentines. And groups like that? They smell weakness. Like the cat that immediately jumps to the lap of the person with allergies, they were determined to convert him to an audience-involvement-groupie.

Now how does all of this relate to Theater J? Well–we closed last season with a show that came about as close to audience participation as we can have in our space: NEW JERUSALEM. It aimed to transport audiences from the auditorium space in the DC JCC to a synagogue in 17th Century Amsterdam. And most people (though certainly not all) bought it. (In fact, Marks himself got it). Did it work because a theater audience is “closer to type” to a congregation than it is, instinctively, to a bunch of South American rappellers and arielists? Were they particularly well cast? Is our audience a naturally good fit to this kind of role?

Perhaps. Often we have audience participation at shows that neither anticipate nor plan for it, in the form of “Oh no s/he didn’t”-type responses. And usually, that’s part of the fun. Our audiences clearly dig the level of audience engagement that talkbacks and panels opportune. For the most part, Theater J audiences are not shy. Would they take it one further? Would they play along with an experience that requires them to get up, to move around, to shift locations–as audiences were asked to do last year for Woolly Mammoth’s FULL CIRCLE?

What are your feelings about audience involvement in a theatrical piece? Hate it? Love it? Appreciate it, but with caveats? Share your thoughts, we’d love to hear.

A final note. In researching references for this post, I’ve come across dozens of blog posts and articles asking many of these same questions. Of all the stories about audience participation, this one ranked as most audacious. I’ll take cats and hippies sitting on my lap over having wine poured on me, any day.