Written for the London Theatre Blog, 27 August 2009
Like waiting tables, participatory theatre would be significantly easier without the customers. Even more so than usual, participatory productions can’t exist without an audience; but many punters run away screaming at the mere mention of getting involved, and the majority of those that do turn up will be either a) secretly hoping they won’t be singled out or b) planning to take advantage of the altered audience-performer relationship to bring out some killer heckles.
Participatory companies not only have to tell a story or make an artistic statement; they’re also responsible for crowd control. As the style becomes more popular, more methods of crowd control emerge. From what I’ve seen so far, they fall into two broad categories: the carrot and the stick.
Belt Up (Nothing to see/hear), who remain my stand-out favourite company from Fringe 2008, lead the carrot-danglers. The cast of The Tartuffe – a revamped version of last year’s Red Room highlight – greet the audience while they’re still queueing and begin gently immersing them into the world of the play, in character but without getting too in-yer-face. At this point I was handed a hi-vis jacket and designated Health and Safety Officer, which was a set-up for a joke much further down the line, but which also began blurring the distinction between audience and performer.
The cast remain scattered throughout the audience as we enter the space and take up positions on a jumble of mattresses, armchairs and bedsteads. There’s a comfortable sense of being amongst friends. The raucous comedy of the play relaxes everyone further; the company’s infiltrators whisper conspiratorial asides to their closest neighbours; and by the time Orgon begins demanding volunteers it seems churlish not to leap obligingly up and play his first wife, or his daughter’s suitor.
The sticky end of the spectrum is characterised by a technique I think of as the Embarrassment Spotlight. I experienced it last year in the hands of Three’s Company, in Auditorium. Companies using it this year include double Fringe First award winners Ontroerend Goed, with Internal, and the slightly lower-profile Tickled Pig Productions, with Parents’ Evening.
The Embarrassment Spotlight harnesses the natural inclination of the audience not to take part, and turns it against one unfortunate individual. For example: the staff of Tickled Pig’s fictional jolly-hockey-sticks institution Aultyme High (billed as “the teachers you wish you’d had”) need a volunteer to take part in a dressing-up competition. After a brief and awkward period of optimistically waiting for genuine volunteers, the cast pick a likely individual themselves and exhort him or her to join in. The combined relief of every other audience member at not being picked on themselves then prevents the nominee from refusing. If they resist, their party (and even complete strangers) will urge them to “go on” or “live a little,” safe in the knowledge that if the nominee lives a little they won’t have to (at least not in this scene).
Ontroerend Goed combine participatory with one-on-one performance, using a speed-dating format to isolate each participant with one performer, which removes the usual recourse (hoping a more gregarious audience member will volunteer first) and forces them to play ball or completely derail the performance.
Provided the company knows what they’re doing, both techniques are actually equally effective at persuading the audience onto their feet. People seem to enjoy themselves more chasing Belt Up’s carrot than avoiding Tickled Pig’s stick, but the two companies tailor their techniques to their dramatic aims. Belt Up aim to foster a sense of relaxed camaraderie, while Tickled Pig aim to recreate the terror and humiliation of a real parents’ evening. No one technique is empirically the best way of using an audience; the whole crowd control spectrum is a toolbox for participatory dramatists.