Reflections - The Audience

I have been spending quite a lot of time thinking about the audience. Clearly, without the audience, we really can't have theatre. Until there are people out there, taking in your words and gestures, everything is just a rehearsal. The give and take between performers and between performer-audience are what make live theatre unique and enjoyable; the sense of risk that something could go wrong, the sense of profound connection with those around you. Increasingly among the avant-garde (and even in the mainstream) there has been a push to involve the audience in new ways. Immersive theatre experiences, although still relatively un-common in Winnipeg, are de rigeur here in London. Even companies as "mainstream" as Headlong, producing with the National Theatre, try to take steps at making the experience in some way interactive for the audience.

Our presentations at RADA played with this to varying degrees. Some groups had the audience sitting on the floor, some had them sampling treats, while still others had them participatinig in the violence against a character, pouring food and liquid over an actor bound to a chair. With each of these experiences, I questioned several things:
- when did this work for me as an audience member?
- when it did work, what was it about this that worked?
- when it didn't work, why not?
- regardless of efficacy, what was this doing to the audience member? And did the group creating the piece seem to know or intend this impact?

I spent likely an equal amount of time watching the audience as I did the production. How were they reacting? What were they happily taking on, compared to what got their backs up or made them uncomfortable?

What I found (almost overwhelmingly) was that when these moments of audience participation worked best, they felt like there was no other way to do it. I could not, as an audience member, think of another way for the message or the scene to be conveyed. The times when it didn't work were times when it didn't feel necessary, where the action felt as if it wasn't done for the sake of the production, but just for the sake of it. Indulgence, at times.

Oddly, some moments which, if described, would feel gratuitous, were just fine - they worked. While conversely others which may sound like they would be ok simply felt over the top. What it comes down to is intention and thought; has the company really thought through what they are doing, why they are doing it - can they justify the choice artistically and as it relates to the text. The times when this didn't seem possible, did not resonate.

Simultaneously, I have been been performing in an immersive theatre event called You Me Bum Bum Train. I can't reveal many details, other than that it is an opportunity for the audience member to be the focus of the show, experiencing various things from the absurt, to the unusual, to the mundane. I have been in a couple different scenes now, and had a chance over my several nights performing to gauge the various reactions people have to the different kinds of scenes. It is really fascinating to watch people who really buy into this audience power, and those who really shut down...along with all gradients in between. I actually admitted to a fellow cast-mate this week that if I just heard about it, I probably wouldn't want to go see this kind of show. Even going to the audition I was nervous, thinking about the awful kinds of audience participation I have seen over the years. But this specific production gives such ultimate care to the emotional ride of the passenger - in fact they call the performance a ride - each scene, and the succession of them, is carefully crafted to take a person through the highs and lows of human experience, but with a sense of safety that allows them to play.

I have, despite my initial worries, ultimate respect for the creators (Kate & Morgan) of this amazing experience, and only hope I can one day create something as truly special and experiential as they have.