The Fever is a participatory performance created by New York artists 600 Highwaymen. It is based in storytelling and choreography, and posits the question of our relationship to other people, and our willingness to be there if someone needs help. Right off the top, the show demands participation. The actors are embedded in the audience, and begin a choreographed movement. There is no explicit instruction to participate, however those not participating face an encouraging look from one of the creators. This subsides when they concede and participate.
From here, audience members are asked to join in participation in various physical activities. From as simple as raising a hand, to chasing an actor around the space, all in service of the story of connection and community that is unfolding. There are certainly some beautiful images and thoughts posed throughout this; do our feelings change when it is an older man lying on the ground versus a younger man? Are we willing to jump up and help when invited? And what happens when a large group of people participate in a physical movement, together, uncertain but together.
What was problematic for me, however, was twofold. First, while the performers (in a subsequent Q&A) indicated that audience members were not required to comply, that dissent or refusal was something that there was "space for" in the work, there was no explicit indication of this. So when you place a group of people in the setting of a theatrical performance, looking at one another, and ask someone to do something, there are social obligations and expectations at play, to "not ruin it for everyone else". Without the actor who initiates the physical participation indicating verbally that it is okay if someone doesn't want to, there is an unspoken pressure to do so. It would take immense strength and bravery for an audience member to come out and deny participation when the space for this has not been made explicit.
Second, the implication of this group participation, of this necessarily being swept up so as to not "ruin it" is a dangerous parallel to our own society, where people refrain from voicing concern at upsetting statements or dangerous beliefs for fear of "getting too political" or causing a scene. Without the expression of consent, I continued to hope that they would flip this on its ear, and show the audience something about the dangers of playing along blindly. But they did not.
It was an interesting concept and experience, but problematic for me, and easily fixable. We have a responsibility to ensure there is clarity of the rules of a space in immersive and participatory performance, otherwise we risk alienating when the goal of that work is to unite and engage.