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Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things
This week, TDF Stages Editor Raven Snook geeks out (via Facebook Messenger) with Juan Michael Porter II, a dancer, teacher and playwright who's contributed articles to Time Out New York, Broadway World, HuffPost and TDF Stages.
Today's topic: the wackiest audience participation we've ever experienced at the theatre.
Raven Snook: When I read that Taylor Mac's new play The Fre at The Flea seats audiences in a ball pit, I started to think about the most out-there things I've been asked to do—or seen others asked to do—at shows. To be clear, I don't mean audience misbehavior, i.e. tales of theatregoers who leap up on stage to charge their phones. I'm talking about participatory bits that are built into a show.
The wildest act I was ever asked to participate in was at a show at a now-defunct restaurant called La Nouvelle Justine. It had an S&M theme, and there were live performances. I ended up on stage blindfolded and bound and got whipped—and not lightly! This was back in the '90s when I was young and New York City was very different.
My most mortifying audience participation experience was at a show called PaGAGnini at the New Victory Theater. It was a comedic classical quartet, and one of the musicians came into the audience looking for a volunteer. I was reviewing so I shook my head when he came to me. But it was a house full of high schoolers and the only other adults were teachers supervising their students, so when he inevitably circled back to me, I acquiesced. I got on stage and he pretended to fall in love with me and gave me a rose and serenaded me with his violin. Eventually he allowed me to return to my seat, but throughout the rest of the show, he periodically came over to me with a forlorn look and played for me and all the adolescents in the audience would freak out! Instead of the actor's nightmare, it was the audience member's nightmare!
Juan Michael Porter II: Yikes! I love a spotlight, but even I am shy about being the center of attention without preparation. This reminds me of the Broadway show Fela! I had a friend in the cast who pulled me into the aisle and insisted I dance with him during their audience interaction segment. The dancers usually only ran up and down the aisle and thrilled the crowd with a trick or two, but at this matinee I ended up showing off a few moves myself. I played it up, but I spent the rest of the show sweating. It should not have been a big deal since I was still performing at that time, but I kept imagining that people were looking at me and that I would have to get up and "perform" again.
Similarly, at the one and only Renaissance Faire I ever attended, I was picked to play the best man for a wedding scene, during which I had to shut down someone who tried to interrupt the vows! I was so confused because the actors kept looking at me like I was supposed to know what was going on. Then they made me dance with the bride before I was allowed to return to my seat. Afterward, the actors brought me over a full carafe of beer (which I don't drink, luckily my friend did) and thanked me for being a good sport.
Raven: Ha! Did they expect you to have the ring, too? The thing about audience participation is that it's great fun for everyone—except for the person who gets picked. I realize some people love it, but I'm like you: I am a control freak and I don't want the spotlight thrust upon me. I want to step into it of my own volition.
Juan Michael: Have you ever seen an outrageous audience participation bit go over so well that you wondered whether the person was a plant?
Raven: Yes! One Man, Two Guvnors is a good example. They pulled a woman from the audience up on stage and subjected her to all kinds of madness. At first I thought she was just very amiable, but as they started to cover her in food and she was forced to change her clothes, I figured she had to be an actor. She came out and bowed at the end so there was no doubt. Privacy with Daniel Radcliffe at The Public Theater was tricky. He had three allegedly random "dates" on stage with audience members. Two were theatergoers, one was an actress, but it took a while to figure that out.
But that's a different subject we can go on about another time. What are the wackiest things you've seen audience members you think are real do?
Juan Michael: For many years, The Awesome 80s Prom was staged at Webster Hall. I worked at that club at that time and became friends with a few of the actors. One night, the emcee offered a super-enthusiastic audience member a drink but kept snatching it away before she could grab it. This evolved into her having to go through all sorts of hoops to get that drink, including a dance-off, a limbo (which she was shockingly good at considering her heels and super-poofy dress) and a barrel race. When she finally got her drink, the emcee demanded she drink it in one gulp, which she accomplished by spilling it all over her face rock-concert style and screaming out loud. That was hands down the strangest thing I've ever seen anyone willingly participate in.
More often than not, I've watched people squirm. In 2015, dance provocateur Daniel Holt presented a show during which he jumped onto the lap of a man in the audience and proceeded to scream in his face. I kept hoping that he was a plant, but based on his hyperventilating after the ordeal ended, I suspect not. There are instances when I worry that audience participation goes too far, both in terms of how the theatregoer responds and what the theatregoer is subjected to.
Of course not all can-you-believe-that-just-happened moments are traumatic. The sweetest audience participation I ever witnessed was Nadine Bommer Dance Company's Invisi'BALL at the New Victory Theater. Her women dancers were masquerading as obnoxious male soccer players and they went into the audience. One performer tried to give a child a high five, and he was struck catatonic with fear. Picking up on that, the performer started dribbling an invisible ball between her feet and asked the kid to pass it to the players on stage. After a few hesitant tries, the kid sent that imaginary ball sailing to enthusiastic cheers. That didn't feel like the kid had to participate; it was a nurtured response that helped him come out of his shell.
Raven: That makes me think of another New Victory show: The Flaming Idiots, in which a woman was brought up on stage so a vaudeville performer could fix her a sandwich… with his feet! He washed them on stage to prove they were clean, and he was even able to cut the sandwich in half with a knife using his toes. But then she had to eat it!
The key to making audience participation work is never forcing someone to do something. If there's genuine resistance, the performer usually moves on. There's got to be trust. If you really thought you'd be hurt or end up in tears, you'd never go along with anything. Certainly, some shows ask more of their audience participants than others. I remember mime David Shiner being super-aggressive with the audience at Fool Moon, pouring people's drinks over their heads and such, although I feel like that happens a lot now. At Slava's Snowshow the clowns dumped water on people, and of course some shows, like Blue Man Group, have splatter zones. I remember being at a John Fleck solo show at PS122 where he was climbing all over the audience and threatening to poop on us. Thankfully, he never did that last part. I feel like most theatre performers know the limits of what they can do to us. We live in a litigious society, but I haven't heard of anyone suing over audience participation... not yet anyway.
Oh! I just remembered a kooky thing I did at Queen of the Night, a sexy immersive circus show. In between acts you ate dinner and sometimes, performers would come and take you away for private experiences. A very cute, scantily clad young man brought me and my husband into a small room where we all lay on a bed and he had me brand my spouse with an X!! It was some kind of electrolysis machine and it wasn't permanent, but for about six months there was a visible X on my husband's wrist. I think that flirted with going too far! But we went along with it, so clearly the performer picked the right couple.
Juan Michael: I went to Queen of the Night and was given the choice of a bath or a feast. I chose the former and ended up in a bathtub relaxing and having the titular Queen herself come in and give me a temple massage. I kept thinking, shouldn't she be on stage? I worried that something super-risqué might happen, but it was actually lovely and relaxing. I even snoozed at one point. That's a far cry from your branding experience!
Magic shows often have crazy audience participation parts. Derren Brown's Secret involved mass hypnosis and I'm convinced that the 15 audience members who stood up at his suggestion and started dancing were truly under his command. Once he released his hold on them, they all looked as if they'd lost time. The woman who'd been shimmying in front of me like Carmen Miranda seemed to have no idea why she was standing up and sweating. I kept sneaking looks at her for the rest of the show and she was either the best plant ever or had really gone under. Maybe that's the craziest thing I ever saw an audience member do, obeying Brown's commands, particularly to dance. Watching them felt so freeing, they were out of character and out of control, but ultimately joyful.
Raven: So, is audience participation a cheap gimmick to get everyone laughing or loosened up? Or is there real artistic value to it?
Juan Michael: I think both. While it's often done for humor, breaking that fourth wall is very powerful. It's thrilling when the audience and the actors don't know exactly what's coming next. I think that's part of why immersive theatre is so popular these days. More and more theatregoers want to be part of the show, and audience participation gives them that buzz, plus great stories to tell at parties!
Top image: The Fre at The Flea. Photo by Hunter Canning.
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