While many shows at the fringe successfully push against “the norm”, some performers believe that “pushing the boundaries” and “invading boundaries” are the same thing in regards to audience interaction. This is dangerously wrong.
I had a teacher in drama school, Hanna, who was 5’4, silent and like a sparrow with secret teeth; if she liked your scene you were enveloped in the gentle joy of her big brown eyes as she quietly thanked you for your work as if you’d saved a life that day; if she didn’t, her anger shamed you for months as you contemplated why you’d even become an actor in the first place. While harsh, she was almost always correct in her assessments and beat the lazy and self satisfied egos out of you until you were raw, honest and strong. The thing I remember most clearly that she said to our class was this:
“In the theatre your audience is in your care. They have entered a safe space where they can experience storytelling without feeling afraid or attacked. Take care of your audience.”
Now, Hanna didn’t like every kind of theatre. She didn’t enjoy immersive performances, which I love and despised violence onstage (which I also love). The thing she disliked most of all was forcing the audience to participate. Thus, there were perfectly good productions that happened to involve audience interaction that Hanna did not enjoy. But Hanna’s point about “taking care of your audience” is something profoundly important for every production, no matter how interactive or immersive the nature of the show is, and should be taken into account. In fact, I believe it is the responsibility of each and every production to ensure the audience is treated respectfully.
At the Fringe, the fourth wall is often thrown out the window. It is commonplace for performers to interact with audience, and for festival-goers to occasionally disrupt performers through heckling or rowdiness. Many shows thrive on intimacy and improvised audience interactions, and that’s perfectly fine.
But how do you ensure you are taking care of your audience? It’s a tricky thing. Some performers veer on the cautious side. Briony Redman, a gifted, goofy story-teller, gives audience members a green, yellow or red badge at the start of the show depending on their comfort level with audience participation. While Redman is on the more conservative side of what it means to take care of her audience it’s important to note her gentleness with older audience members in particular won her enthusiastic participation from an ordinarily shy 60-70something crowd. When I saw her one woman sketch show, The Secret Show, an older couple who seemed apprehensive at the start of the show were cheering and talking comfortably as Redman interacted with them later on.
Another comedian, Ria Lina, whose show discusses sex and dating an older man, at one point asked me if I minded if she used me to explain something; being game (I was a green sticker in Redman’s show) I agreed, and she intimately stroked my hair, talking to me in place of her husband to illustrate a conversation they had once had, which un-sexily ended up being about life insurance. This moment illustrated how intimacy between audience and performer can occur safely while both parties are aware of the role-play nature of the interaction. I felt assured Lina wouldn’t force me out of my comfort zone, and she trusted I wouldn’t take the contact the wrong way.
In the immersive theatre world, companies such as London based Punchdrunk and US based Third Rail Projects take huge measures to ensure audiences feel safe and comfortable enough to enjoy the show. As a former steward for Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, a huge part of my job was making sure audience members were okay. The show was set in a four story warehouse, and included smoke, intense physical performances, strobe lighting and a lot of nudity and violent scenes. For most audience members it was the thrill of a lifetime but on occasion people found it to be too much. Audience members were told in advance they could leave the performance at any time, advised to approach the stewards if they felt overwhelmed and were guided to the bar where a staff member would take care of them if there was a problem. On top of this a huge part of our job was looking out for signs an audience member was upset but hadn’t managed to find anyone or was unable to get out. At our discretion we could approach anyone who appeared upset and help them. It rarely happened but it was an important aspect of the job description.
This illustrates that even the most intense audience interactive shows can be done in a way that is caring of the audience, and I think many fringe shows would do well to incorporate this. In stand up, for example, it’s commonplace for a comedian to interact with the audience and riff off conversations that ensue, integrating these improvisations into their pre-prepared material. However, occasionally comedians use the platform to shame, judge, accost and even bully audience members who didn’t volunteer to enter a performer-audience interaction.
One comedian in particular, Eddie Aczel, whose act consists of a man who pretends to know about foreign policy but doesn’t, singled out a young woman in his show and asked her what she knew about foreign policy; the woman, uncomfortable, said she didn’t know and couldn’t think of anything. Aczel insisted, pushing for a solid three minutes, which felt like thirty in performance time.
I gave Aczel a pretty scathing review for which I got a lot of criticism on Twitter, especially from fans of the comedian who said I’d misunderstood the character-based nature of his comedy, and the fact that his act was anti-comedy, a new branch of comedy deliberately being unfunny in order to be funny. The reason I reacted so negatively to his show was, character-based or not, anti-comedy or not, the show was entirely lacking in material, relying entirely on being amused by Aczel’s lack of anything to say. This combined with his somewhat mean audience interactions made for some pretty poor comedy, with the end result being that a clearly uncomfortable woman was embarrassed in front of a room full of strangers.
Another show I reviewed was Zach and Viggo: Thunderflop. Again, I received some Twitter backlash for this; in particular for a tweet I posted about their show, in which I said they “misuse audience interaction”. The reason I said this is that the physical comedy duo, while showcasing great physical gags and outrageous characters in an absurdist style, also at various moments would pick out audience members without consent for quite intimate contact. A lot of these moments involved encouraging the audience to kiss them or each other. At the performance I attended, an audience member literally ducked out of the way, in order to avoid this.
Now, I don’t believe Zach and Viggo are bad guys or are trying to creep on the audience, but their audience interactions don’t give enough room for people to back out of interactions they are uncomfortable with. Kissing, on the mouth in particular, is extremely unusual in an immersive theatrical context. There’s no reason why willing audience members shouldn’t kiss Zach and Viggo when invited, if they wanted to, but unexpectedly leaning in to kiss an audience member, and pushing people into breaking personal boundaries seemed unnecessary to me.
Audiences feel safe in a theatre and will generally do what a performer asks of them, especially if they are made to feel that if they don’t, they’re making someone feel bad, or worse, holding up the show. The duo also encouraged an atmosphere of mass peer pressure, where every time Zach would do something odd or pick out an audience member, the audience would cheer “do it, do it, do it!” In this environment, it’s easy to feel pressured into engaging more intimately with a performer than you’d like. One Twitter user in response to my tweet tweeted “anyone who doesn’t want a kiss from Zach & Viggo is clearly an idiot”. No. Anyone who doesn’t want a kiss from a stranger should have their wishes respected and shouldn’t be forced into an uncomfortable situation.
The baffling thing to me is so many performers seem surprised that audiences members might not want their personal space violated. It’s like being at the fringe gives permission for you to do anything you like with another human being for the sake of your show, or worse, oftentimes for the sake of comedy. Comedy is not making someone uncomfortable so everyone else can laugh. Comedy, like all other styles of performance should be inclusive and bring people together. Otherwise, it’s not comedy so much as publicly sanctioned bullying and harassment.
Some other notable mentions for strange performer behaviour include: one performer who went through audience bags without their permission, various comedians who verbally abused their audiences if there was even a few seconds of silence, and Joz Norris’ dangerous stunt with a microphone stand, where he stumbled around the stage for real, in order to pull off a gag about a comedian who hadn’t figured out the mic came off. It would have been funny had the front row not felt thoroughly unsafe at the clearly unrehearsed stunt taking place barely a foot in front of them. At one point, the entire stand nearly collapsed into the audience because he’d left it unsteadied after his bit.
I can barely imagine what Hanna would have said to Joz Norris, Zach, Viggo or Aczel had they been in her class. She berated students who were too lazy to make stunts safe, chewed up foolish acts who invaded others’ privacy and never tolerated poor audience treatment. At the time, her anger often seemed harsh, but having witnessed some of these performances, I now understand what offended her. Theatre can be a powerful tool to connect with people, inspire them, give them a way to safely adventure anywhere and discuss anything. When performers deny audiences the implicit safety they are promised, it can feel like a violation of this space.
To future fringe performers, I say this: respect your audience, and treat them well. And that means your whole audience. Not just the ones that already like your act. If even one audience member feels bullied, belittled, harassed or violated, it reduces the quality of your show.