Written for The Collective Review, 27 November 2009
At this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, Belt Up premiered a new piece of experimental theatre called Leasspell. It involved the company and audience standing together for half an hour, all blindfolded and telling one another love stories. While Belt Up themselves readily admit that Leasspell was not the most successful of experiments, it did raise certain issues that the company explored further this week in a discussion event charmingly titled ‘Chatting Shit: Immersive Theatre and the Actor/Audience Contract’.
I was particularly interested when the discussion – held in a remote attic of the BAC and, thanks to short notice and a start time that fell during office hours, attended mostly by BAC staff – turned to the work of Tim Crouch, having seen the self-proclaimed “darling of the universities” in conversation with playwright and lecturer Dan Rebellato only the previous day, at Royal Holloway University.
In The Author, which I felt pretty favourably about when I reviewed it for the London Theatre Blog, Crouch and his three co-performers repeatedly encourage the audience to contribute. We’re asked, again and again, “Is this okay?’ or “Do you want me to stop?” or “You say something”. At one point, a performer is uncomfortably hot-seated, in character as a survivor of sexual abuse; the sequence ends with the appeal, “Would anyone else like to ask Karen any questions?”
But when members of the audience respond to this encouragement they are ignored. If someone says yes, they would like Crouch to stop, he continues regardless. If someone fires a question at Karen she remains resolutely mute, and after a pause the play continues. And in conversation with Professor Rebellato, Crouch insisted that there is no space in the play for audience participation, claimed not to understand why anyone would continue Karen’s interrogation, and likened the audience’s desire to contribute to a prima donna actor demanding space to improvise in Shakespeare or Beckett.
The consensus amongst the Chatting Shit attendees was that by inviting the audience to speak, the cast of The Author implicitly alter the actor/audience contract that exists in ‘traditional’ or ’straight’ theatre, whereby the actors act and the audience passively observe. Belt Up create similar implicit contracts when the cast of The Tartuffe mingle and chat with the audience in the bar pre-show, or when they adorn the audience with hats and neckerchiefs at the beginning of The Park Keeper. Symbolically loaded actions such as these inform the audience that the show’s boundaries are not in the usual place, and that the environment they’re entering is more permissive.
So are Crouch and his co-performers in breach of contract when they refuse to respond to audience contributions that they have explicitly invited? Similar questions have been asked of Ontroerend Goed, in whose Festival Fringe smash Internal punters confide personal secrets to performers in intimate one-on-one encounters, then sit helpless as their confidants pass on the information in group discussions.
The difference, as far as the Chatting Shit participants could discern, is one of dramatic intent. It was felt that Ontroerend Goed’s dramatic intent is clear: Internal is an interrogation of emotional openness and vulnerability and, most importantly, you get out what you put in; your humiliation extends only so far as you willingly bared your soul in the one-on-one.
The dramatic intent behind The Author, on the other hands, seems to be to get a habitually passive audience to speak up against onstage events that they find morally offensive, but in actual fact, Crouch seethes behind his smile when members of the audience question Karen, feeling that they are perpetrating an act of abuse. But it’s the contract that he, as both a playwright and a performer, implicitly creates between himself and the audience – the permissive environment woven by the words he wrote – that permits this act of abuse to occur. So really, he should be seething at himself.