A theatrical manifesto: hands off the audience!
By Peter Marks
On "The Office" last week, the noted theater critic Dwight Schrute reacted with a look of disdain after his frequent nemesis Andy Bernard invited him to see him in a community-theater production of "Sweeney Todd."
Dwight put him off with a sly dig. The last time he went to the theater, he declared, a Cat sat in his lap.
I say, "Bravo!" Dwight. Not because he's stayed away from musical drama since "Cats," but because he stood up to one of the most annoying trends in modern theater: actors who are instructed to make us part of the play.
It happens all the time. Playwrights, directors and performers all seem to think that we want to be part of their act, that during a performance we're desperate for actors to descend into the aisles, converse with us, tussle our hair--even, occasionally, drag us back up into the footlights with them.
It occurred again the other day at a subversive little play at Studio Theatre in DC, "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven." Repeatedly, the actors broke what's known in drama classes as the fourth wall. They sidled up to playgoers in the first row and led them onto the stage, to perform fairly meaningless little chores, like holding up the ends of a makeshift screen. There was method here: the activity was meant to mask the participation in the play of some actual actors sitting in the audience. But still, you could sense that some of the unwitting performers would rather have been left alone. And as paying customers, didn't they deserve to be?
Is it the perception of the audience's vanity, a collective need to bask in reflected limelight, that has encouraged the theater in these little stunts? Dame Edna, that ladylike Australian flame-thrower, has used this technique to funny effect over the years. Still, you sit in a prominent seat at one of her shows at your peril--and with the knowledge that her shtick often entails making mincemeat of the unfortunates she calls on.
Even when the contact promises less potential embarrassment, it can be irritating. If the Broadway experience for the revival of the musical "Hair" is going to be replicated in DC later this month, shyer patrons sitting on the aisles at the Kennedy Center are going to have to gird themselves for the moments when an actor in full hippie regalia approaches them for some uncomfortable one-on-one time.
When actors come toward me, I go into defensive posture: I avert my eyes, twist away from them in my seat. Usually, that's enough to keep them at bay. But even these tactics are not fail-safe deterrents. A few years ago a performer interrupted her show to pull my notebook and pen from my hands and toss them into a corner. Interactive, schminteractive. Can't we restore that wonderful invisible fence between us and them?
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