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Sunday, 26 November 2017

Audience Participation

In the 1970s, I attended a performance at the SchauspielhausDüsseldorf of Jerome Savary’s Grand Magic Circus. As part of the performance, an attractive, young, fully nude female performer sat on an elderly male spectator’s lap for a while. My first observation of audience participation. 

Caroline Horton in Penelope Untold
In March 2015, Caroline Horton  presented her one-woman show Penelope Retold at the Lincoln Performing Arts Centre (LPAC). She plays Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and re-tells her story from a contemporary angle. Before the show, spectators were asked to fill in a form, with name, age, and answers to three or so questions. At some point in the performance, Penelope reveals that Odysseus had given her permission to assume him dead when their son grows his first beard and he had not yet returned from war. At that point, Penelope was free to remarry. She had contacted a marriage bureau and they had sent her a number of profiles. Horton then opened an envelope and took out the forms we had filled in. She read out some, at random, deciding against a female, and against a very young male, and then read out my form, and asked me to identify myself and to join her on stage. Once I got there, she asked me to sit on the wooden steps leading up to the large bed that constituted the set, and that she never left throughout the performance. Horton / Penelope asked me specific questions about myself, then proceeded to tell me about herself. She offered me sparkling wine (assuring me in a whisper that is was only fizzy water), and concluded by assuring me she had enjoyed our meeting and conversation, that neither of us was in a hurry to take things forward, and she might phone me in due course. I was then asked to return to my seat, and at the end of the performance, Horton motioned to me during the curtain call.

It was an enjoyable experience for me, exciting, unusual, and challenging. Some of her questions addressed my attitude towards the military of today, in relation to her own rather critical war widow’s attitude to it two millennia ago, and in my response, I sought to balance giving answers that would make my character a favourable candidate for a relationship, while at the time not offending any members of the military, or their friends and relatives that might well have been in the audience in an area with a large number of RAF bases, for example. I never felt uncomfortable during what may have been five minutes on stage, because the performer, Horton, came across as in control, and her guidance for my performance was firm and clear throughout. 

At the performance in LPAC on 29 September of Maisie Says She Loves Me, written by Jimmy Osborne, and performed and directed by David Aula, the character presented in this one-man show is Sheldon, the boyfriend of Maisie. Aula selects, apparently at random, a female spectator, asks her to leave her chosen seat and to sit in the front row on a seat kept free for that purpose. He then addresses her as Maisie throughout, gives her the flowers he gave to Maisie, and the bottles of Champagne he gave to Maisie to apologise for shouting at her (one bottle) and hitting her (two bottles), respectively. He invited her to stand up for a mutual hug, and she had to caress his face. Aula asked several other apparently random members of the audience to repeat his words, representing friends and acquaintances of Sheldon asking him aggressive questions. He approached me when he talked about Maisie’s father, Henry, reporting that Henry had a habit of handing out wine to guests like a butler. He then gave me a bottle of red wine and some plastic tumblers from the LPAC bar. There were no clear instructions on what to do, so I opened the bottle and poured a little into the first tumbler, offering it to another spectator in the row in front of me. In this way I distributed three tumblers with wine from where I was sitting, and then passed the wine bottle and remaining tumblers down the rows for others to help themselves as they liked. Some did, and in the end the bottle and the remaining tumblers were placed on the stairs. Other spectators chuckled when I distributed the wine, Aula later commented, in character, to the effect that the real Henry at least moved around while serving, whereas I had remained seated. Without clear instruction, as participating spectator I was left in some kind of limbo, and later I was possibly told off for not having done what the actor/character may have expected me to do, but, without having asked him after the show, I still do not know what I had been meant to do and why. That lack of guidance was not satisfactory. See also the blog entry on the2013 Salon project. 

Guidance does not need to be restricting, as the Horton/Penelope Retold example shows. The performer needs to be aware that appropriate, non-restrictive guidance of audience participation is essential for its success, and that it needs careful thinking and planning. Unguided or insufficiently guided audience participation distracts and is painful. Carefully guided audience participation is fun for all involved.

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