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A theatrical manifesto: hands off the audience!

Sue Jin Song as "Grandmother" in "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven", playing at Studio Theatre. (Carol Pratt)

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?

By Peter Marks  | October 12, 2010; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  Kennedy Center, Peter Marks, Theater  
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Peter seems like a sad, somewhat bitter, man who doesn't know how to relax and have fun. Maybe theatre isn't the place for him. If he wants an invisible fence between him and the audience, he should stay at home and watch TV.

Posted by: smacktor | October 13, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Marks, you strike me as a fairly urbane and intelligent person. However, you don't seem to understand that the "wonderful invisible fence between us and them" is a modern convention, & "restoring" that fence is not a theatrical tradition. The theatre is one of the rare artistic mediums that has allowed audiences to have full contact with the artists who have created the work throughout its entire history.

I agree with you that some performers can be annoying when they try to engage the audience, and that audience participation can sometimes be less than charming. Still, what you're arguing for should be about the EXECUTION of using audience participation, rather than outright discarding/banning of what can be a powerful theatrical tool for expression/engagement. Remember, it is the LIVE theatre. One should expect some engagement with real, breathing people. Audience participation has a great tradition dating back to the birth of theatre in both folk/provincial theatre, as well as the more formalized, orthodox professional structures (i.e. Shakespeare's theatre). Your theatrical preferences strike me as something that could be defined by either the French dramatic neoclassical school (and I can't say they with full certainty they always completely ruled out audience participation), or by skipping a couple of centuries to the straight dramatic theatre of the USA in the 1950s...and even they sometimes engaged in such practices as talking to the audience.

Again, I can empathise with you if you simply don't like having an actor take your personal effects and toss them across the room. However, some of us want to go to the theatre and have the possibility that we'll be engaged through all our senses...and that could possibly include touch. The theatre works best when there is a possibility that ANYTHING can happen at any moment. I don't think one can fully exploit those possibilities by REMOVING options/tools in the theatrical artist's arsenal. True, artists sometimes can create great things with impositions and limitations, but eventually the work demands to expand out of its imposed barriers and cries out to engage humanity in new, frightening, annoying, and inspiring ways.

So if you want a true fourth wall between you and performer you're free go to the movies and stare at a giant screen. No one in that medium will ever reach out and touch you, actually speak to you, or do anything to violate your physical comfort zone. If that's not good enough and the actors on the screen sometimes speaking to you bother you, and you're still crying out for an invisible fence, you're more than free to put on a dog collar that emits electrical shocks. It'll keep you within the perimeter of your house & you'll never have to again deal with the threat of engaging people physically.

Posted by: krawczykmark | October 13, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

I just finished a play that makes some interaction with the audience part of the work. It's an integral part of the play -- which is about political celebrity culture and the passive and active complicity of the audience in it -- though it doesn't single out single members of the audience.

The question with these gambits is: "Are they essential to the play?" and "Do they work?" It's hard to generalize about such things.

And I agree with @krawczykmark; the movies are the place to go if you want passive engagement of the senses.

Posted by: svejk3 | October 13, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I'd like to agree with Mark and @svejk3. I have a show opening this weekend that makes substantial use of audience interaction. It fits both the aesthetic and the script. Now, obviously, some audience members don't want to "play," and that's fine. But I find it disturbing to see that the Washington Post's lead theatre critic is advocating an "invisible fence" throughout all DC Theatre.

Audience interaction is what makes live theatre so engaging. Mark did an excellent job explaining why this is, so I won't waste words repeating his. Suffice it to say, Mr. Marks comes across in this opinion piece as quite the cynic. One can only hope that this jaded, in-the-minority view won't affect his reviews for the Post.

Posted by: dc_director32 | October 13, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

"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?"

They deserve to entertained or educated, they deserve to get the story that the play is trying to communicate. They deserve to see live theatre and see the mist of an actor's breath in the lights, to see some improv when things go wrong, to feel part of the action if that what the event requires, to know they are part of a moving, living, breathing event that won't pause when they feel uncomfortable, need to tinkle, or send a text.

Some come to see a spectacle, some to be part of one. Some plays embrace and use fourth wall breaking techniques, some don't. Don't toss baby out with the bathwater because you are squeamish or a few performers or directors used it ineffectually(or offensively). Audience contact is a tool and when it is done appropriately and elegantly can leave everybody enriched by allowing them become part of the larger than life story. It is one of few things that people can't get elsewhere in entertainment. Don't throw away one of theatre's unique tools forever just because you saw somebody apply it to the wrong occasion. Blame the production, blame your squeamishness, but don't blame the concept or the tool.

Posted by: collectmydata | October 13, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Please stay away from my theater. If I saw you with a notebook and pen I'd come down the aisle myself. Go read the script where you feel more comfortable.

Posted by: lancedavis | October 13, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

wonder what this guy would think of attending a play at shakespeare's globe in london, where us peasantry stand in the open air, and lean our elbows up on the edge of the stage alongside our beers? my husband and i saw 'as you like it' there while on our honeymoon and the crowd interaction was both prevalent and hilariously engaging. i say pish posh on this critic and keep theatre alive & fresh!

Posted by: jboastfield | October 13, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

We also used to cook raw meat over an open flame in Shakespeare's time, and dump our feces directly into the street. That doesn't mean we need to do that now.

The actors in most cases have no business interacting with an audience. It cheapens the experience and proves a total lack of creativity on the part of the playwright and director to make it part of the show.

Theatre CAN educate and challenge, yes. But that is not what it was about in Shakespeare's day either. It was about entertainment, and people have the right to be safely entertained by professional without being accosted.

I am an actor myself and I hate doing this.

Not to mention, a truly well written, produced, directed, and performed play can challenge, educate and move an audience without resorting to the juvenile stunt of direct interaction. (And that is truly all that it is...a stunt.)

Posted by: tythewriter | October 13, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Are you sure by "invisible fence" Marks meant that the actors shouldn't directly address or look directly at the audience?

I only get from the article that Marks has a problem with actors asking the audience to come onstage and hold a prop, or with actors stepping into the audience to converse with one particular audience member.

Those who correctly state that the "fourth wall" is a modern (18th c) idea might want to reflect that there's not much historical precedent for getting the audience onstage and (outside some of the earlier and rougher commedia) I'm not aware of a tradition of the actors leaving the stage to directly approach audience members.

The one earlier period I know of in which the audience got onstage was during the English restoration... members of the audience could pay extra sit on the stage. The "interaction" that ensued was initiated by rowdy rich guys and not the actors, who reputedly to hated it.

I once played in a Cherry Red show where drunks tried to "interact" with me...I hated it, too.

Posted by: Cath1 | October 13, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Shakespeare, Eurpides, and Chekhov both have plays that have "direct address" the audience.
Theater artists such as Brecht and Grotowski developed contemporary theater (interractivity) to permit the diverse range of theater-experiences beyond naturalism, and/or preserving a verisimilitude of "reality" onstage.
Artists today from Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service to Peter Brook and Lee Breuer ask audiences to "think different." They address a need and an impulse not only within themselves, but in their audiences.
Artists are audiences, too. They make the kind of work THEY would want to see. And clearly, others like their bold visions.
It´s too bad that Mr Marks does not like interactive theater, but who cares? There are plenty of plays that uphold that Invisible Fence he craves.
What I find fascinating is that, at a "live" event such as theater, which (at its root for the past 4000+ years) is rooted in community--why does he want a fence around him at such a community-centered event?

Posted by: brendanmccallnorway | October 13, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Don't want to be involved in the experience of live theatre and performance? Fine: Stay home and watch your damn tv!

Posted by: JimLykins | October 13, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Clearly there are a lot of strong feelings on the topic. It's hard to argue the worthiness of any posting that galvanizes such great discussion. Another really thoughtful conversation about this piece sprang up on facebook today. That conversation is reposted here:

There are links to some other great articles in the thread too. Check it out.

Posted by: JMcFred | October 13, 2010 8:49 PM | Report abuse

What an astonishing turnout by the interactive crowd, which mostly seems to be the artists. I'm with Marks and tythewriter. I dodge interactive events like the plague - I never know my role, it embarrasses me, I feel imposed upon, and I am embarrassed for those who are imposed upon. I'm happy for those who want to be part of the show, but count me out. I'm a theatre designer - maybe we have thing about the fictive space.

Posted by: designerguy | October 13, 2010 10:57 PM | Report abuse

I've seen a lot of shows that have made me uncomfortable thanks to audience interaction. I have also seen shows that integrated the audience successfully. Gob Squad's "Kitchen," which I saw a couple of weeks ago, was one of my favorite theatrical experiences to date, and it had, in fact, the most intense level of audience participation I've ever seen -- but it worked.

It depends. It always depends. Audience interaction is a tool that is (mostly) unique to live art forms, and if you want to use it and can use it well, I think you should use it. As with any tool, being able to use it takes a level of self-awareness. Be honest with yourself about the effectiveness of your art.

Posted by: ctams | October 14, 2010 2:15 AM | Report abuse

To those who say they are uncomfortable being drawn into the show I would wonder if they would be better suited to film. Isn't theater supposed to upend the audience and push the envelope? Isn't this all it has left to offer as an important, unique art form? Immediacy, spectacle, and phenomenon? This is of course as long as it serves a purpose in the performance. I think it would be sad if theater always just left us alone in our seats, left to maintain our opinions and our comfort. I could spend a lot less money to sit hidden in the back of a dark theater.

Posted by: christheobscure | October 14, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

No, theatre is NOT about upending the audience and pushing the envelope!

Envelope pushing is beside the point. Theatre is story told thru dialogue and action, while film is story told primarily thru images.

Go ahead and push or upend all you want...but theatre that exists to amuse, to enthrall or to make us think is just as valid as theatre to push envelopes, push buttons or push anything else.

Posted by: Cath1 | October 14, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

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