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Plan Rocker Show Stopper

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Theatre producers seem to live in a permanent terror about the pending Ragnarok. It may be that most of the theatre makers I know don’t have even 60 days cash on hand never mind a liquid operating fund, but it seems that they are always looking to paint innovation onto whatever mission they already have. That they’re seeking to continue doing theatre that they enjoy making while shoehorning in whatever the kids like these days.

Since the Gossip Girl-ification of Sleep No More immersive has become as hot as a theatrical fad can be, with even pretty tepidly dramaturged lobbies trying to claim ‘immersiveness’. I’ve heard calls since I began blogging in 2006 to increase audience ownership of the performance and performance space. Bromides about relaxing rules, expectations and essentially eliminating the silent sanctuary in theatre that emerged with the naturalism of the last century. This all gets phrased as though theatre makers pursuing the theatre they like in the style that they like are lesser than. The language is literally, “you need to be less precious about what you do”. This comes current again after an incident of audience buffonery at Hand To God and Patti Lupone Luponing again.

That’s certainly one approach. You can eliminate rules, standards and controls and let audiences behave as though they were in their living rooms.  You can choose only shows that will appeal to %63  or more of all audiences and are guaranteed to never make them angry… but that’s not welcoming an audience, that’s fearing them and that they’re going to leave.

Instead I want to make sure that the environment is controlled and the rules are clear and low friction.

When you go to a child’s performance (your own or affiliated) you don’t watch the show. You watch them. You’re tense, trying to will them to non-embarrassment. There’s nothing enjoyable about it. It’s stressful. Audiences will feel that way until you signal to them that you have control. A couple of years ago I was part of Coin-Flip Richard II. I led the Company out on stage did a quick monologue outlining the concept of the show and then flipped the coin.

The company will talk about the one time the coin bounced off the heel of my hand, down my tunic and into my (tucked) pant leg. But out of 100 tosses I would comfortably, easily, confidently catch and read 99. Then the play begins with Richard delivering his opening speech WHILE being dressed.

Clear, confident moments leading directly into the opening speech from jump signaling that we know what we’re doing. Even on the night the (first) coin lived in my sock I had a spare coin out and ready IMMEDIATELY.

It’s the same way in your space. If you have seats on the stage you’ve broken down that wall and you either have an usher keeping people off the set or you have given your guests permission to muck about with it. If you leave floor bases in your aisles without guidance taped out you are telling your guests that the space doesn’t matter. If you give a floppy apologetic curtain speech you rob the first moments of your show. It’s about control, the appearance of control, and signalling to the audience that they can relax, you’re steering the ship.

If you want to create audience involvement or even simply space for audience rowdiness you can’t just decide that Wednesday Nights are PAY WHAT YOU CAN BLACKOUT DRUNK SHOUT AT THE ACTORS NIGHT at…. Death of a Salesman. It doesn’t work to make a holistic night of theatre and aside from the full vomitoriums everyone is just going to have a bad time. You can’t even make a company standard work for all shows… Bonecrusher Night at Richard II was… awkward. Not because the cast was being “precious” or the audience was wrong, we had no controls built in to keep telling the story at hand and there weren’t handholds for them to groundling from. If you want to give the audience leeway you have to build it in from jump. Honestly, it should probably also not be in the sanctuary.

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You need to make something like Lonestar, Texas: A Popcorn-Throwing Rock-Country Musical that Vestige Group put together in Austin several years ago. It was not in a traditional theatre space. They handed you popcorn at the door and sold beer. The show had a number of hooks to help you into the interactivity of it and a number of stopgaps to get back to the show and take back the control. It cues the entire audience that the night will not be a sit-and-receive sort of show, expectations are set.

But mostly? We need stop crushing folks who break one of the unwritten rules. Should you know better than hopping on stage? Of course. But this guy is an international laughing stock, Google bombed for the rest of his life because he showed up too drunk to a possessed puppet show and disrespected the altar. Maybe we could treat him as though he were a person.

 

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  • Pat Loeb

    regarding the gent who mistakenly went onstage to charge his cellphone (cuz heaven forbid he be without it for an hour) – had his SECOND interview been his first, I think everyone would have granted him grace for not knowing. But his first interview was full of entitlement and “hey, I brought the show publicity and they shd thank me for getting it headlines” – which just rubbed we theater folk the wrong way.

  • Courtney DeGinder

    Aw, thanks for mentioning vestige. That production is one of my favorites: it was consistently fun and a joy to watch. And yes, Ben (the playwright) put quite a bit of thought into how to handle the audience, much of it borrowed from pre-Romantic era theater. What I loved about that show, though, is that there existed every night a give and take between audience and performer, much more like stand-up comedy or improv than scripted performance. It was an experience that cannot be replicated by video, or even by itself: you were either there to throw popcorn that particular night or you weren’t. Personally, I’m all for more of this in my theater…too often, I think we get distracted by the idea of our art and forget the ephemeral yet essential nature of telling a story to a responsive audience.