First it was in the New York Times. Then it was on The Office. And then it was on Peter Marks’ Arts Post blog, and the minds of actors, directors and many others in the local theater community, prompting an outpouring of response on social media to the question: What is the role of audience participation in theater? And unsurprisingly, most of them were rather disappointed with Peter Marks’ noli me tangere stance.
“What really gets me is what is beneath this ‘leave me to sit in my seat in the dark’ attitude of Marks and many other theatre goers and makers. It feels like a denial of theatre to be an art form,” said a post on the Dog and Pony D.C. blog, saying that audience participation is necessary to keep people engaged. Dog and Pony often includes the audience in their performances, as they did in this year’s Separated at Birth.
"Now, I know theatres talk about audience all the time, but it seems to be from the business point of view. The discussion is about how to get more audience, how to keep the audience, how to diversify the audience, how to train the audience to like the stuff being done…even the artsy stuff. The actual experience of the audience, I feel, is being overlooked. I struggle with being an audience member."
The Rorschach Theater posted the link to Marks’ post on their Facebook page, which launched a lengthy discussion.
Actor Jonathon Church: Those are real live human beings telling a story, and sometimes that story needs to reach out and touch people, to break that fourth wall, to make people realize that yes we can hear your cell phone and yes we see you texting, and yes we are doing something here and if you can let yourself be part of the moment, something wonderful and adrenaline filled might be coming at you or your neighbors at any second. We aren't going to press pause on this story so you can go tinkle, it's living and breathing and you better pay attention. We are going to bring it home to you if that's what we think needs to be done and it serves the play.
Co-artistic director of Rorschach Theatre Jenny McConnell Frederick: I would argue that not everyone who's dragging the audience out of their seats has such a clear need for that kind of interaction in order to communicate their story. I think it's hard for any of us who make a living in live theater to be objective about what impact audience interaction has on those who appreciate and support the work, but for whom theatre is not a way of life. Should the audience experience be our number one priority?--debatable. But is it worthy of consideration?--absolutely.
Theater J’s Shirley Serotsky points out a must-read Onion item (“Oh No, Performers Coming Into Audience”) before coming down squarely in the middle:
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.
Meanwhile, Travis Bedard, artistic director of Cambiare Productions in Austin, Texas chimes in with seven rules for actors and directors who want to use the audience in their shows.
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.
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, the show that spurred Marks to write his rant, fulfills about five of these, although even though it's not explicitly stated, by now everyone knows that audience participation is in the show thanks to the buzz it’s received. But even though Marks thought there was no real reason to include the audience in the show, actress Sue Jin Song disagrees. She explained to me what purpose it serves in this post.
Complete this story: If you've written a blog post responding to Marks' comments, leave the link in the comments. I'll continue to update this post.