By Ralph Wainer
Taking an historical view, I have a strong suspicion that audience participation consisted mostly of pelting actors with rotten apples and was generally discouraged by the cast and crew. In the polite society we live in these days, reviewers on websites such as ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ continue to hurl metaphorical fruit (or vegetables?) at the safe distance of online rating forums, much to the delight of heath and safety enthusiasts.
Genuine audience participation these days seems to be confined to two extremes of professional entertainment, namely Christmas pantomimes and lap-dancing. It is a sad state of affairs.
One of the main differences between watching a play and a movie is that at any moment in time an actor, should he or she be willing, can grab you on stage, ask your name, embarrass you in front of all your friends and then ask you to perform a really simple task, which you suddenly can’t manage. Such bold acts are rarely performed by modern dramatists. These days, you often must first volunteer to go on stage; you are not pulled on it.
The most sophisticated use of an audience can perhaps be seen at a night of improvised comedy, where onlookers can shout out what should happen next in the show.
At this moment, I can only think of two iconic people who managed to get the audience to do exactly what they wanted. The first is John Lennon when he said: ‘Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands and the rest of you if you just rattle your jewellery!’ The second is Peter Pan urging the audience to clap their hands to revive the dying Tinker Bell. Both have persuaded the audience to actually do something, albeit simply to rattle one’s tiara. Not much to be asked really, yet it would be an astonishing feat for any modern entertainer these days to do anything similar.
Although rarely seen these days, I genuinely enjoy it when the audience gets actively involved in the play, simply because it makes the production all the more ‘real’ in the sense that you know for certain that you are not watching a movie.
However, it could be relatively straightforward to fully interact with an audience, admittedly providing you only had two or three audience members. If only such productions were commercially feasible! I’m thinking here of a full scale re-enactment of an Eighteenth Century pirate tavern with twenty actors. The stage would be a room full of drunken sailors, rum bottles everywhere and you would be sitting between two rough seamen. They would ask you questions and you would have to answer.
Maybe we are not yet ready for that sort of theatre!
Illustration: Harriet-Jade Harrow