The urge to perform

I AM not a great fan of audience participation – certainly not for myself, and rarely when I see others roped in. Frequently it involves people making spectacles of themselves or being put in an awkward position they can’t wriggle out of. It almost invariably feels like a power trip on the part of the performers. Alternatively, getting up on stage can go to the non-professional’s head and embarrassment ensues. So no, not a great fan. In fact, I loathe it.

True, I managed to survive a spot of participatory action at The Rabble’s 2013 Melbourne Festival show, Room of Regret, but happily it was in an extremely benign form – the actor, me, and an otherwise empty space in which we gazed wordlessly at each other. I could manage that.

Full marks, then, to Sydney company My Darling Patricia and its latest theatre work, The Piper, which premiered at the Sydney Festival last week. The involvement of a section of the audience is a crucial part of the performance. In fact, The Piper couldn’t take place without these people, who play townsfolk and their children in a version of the Pied Piper story.

And get this. Not only does My Darling Patricia get a substantial workforce for free, the participating audience members pay just as much for their tickets as do those who sit back, relax and enjoy the performance. Respect.

I really do mean that. My Darling Patricia has found a way of involving even very young children in a non-threatening, creative way. The participants do nothing that would require expertise and are guided at all times via headsets. Their freshness and wonder are a delightful part of the experience for those who are only watching.

The Piper is a fun version of the old German legend, filtered through stories by poet Ted Hughes. There’s an over-developed city, countryside despoiled, a shonky mayor whose pronouncements could come straight from today’s media and, of course, a plague of rats that needs to be dealt with. Narration, puppetry, projection and live action combine to make a strong, clear, memorable story. I would have liked to take part and should have commandeered a child to make that possible.

A more recognisable take on audience participation was seen at Empire, the circus production that’s back in Sydney after a very successful outing at the beginning of last year. Empire positions itself at the raunchy end of the spectrum and to this end treats the audience a bit roughly, although why telling audience members to “sit the fuck down” might be considered witty escaped me.

But on to the participation bit. It’s common in shows such as Empire – the family includes La Clique, which morphed into La Soiree – for performers to interact with audience members in a way that might be considered, ahem, rather familiar. Drinks are stolen, laps sat on, heads fondled and so on. On the night I saw Empire a man was brought to the stage and touched up pretty comprehensively. True, he was laughing, as was everyone else (although not old sourpuss me). But what if he’d felt the performers were going beyond what he felt comfortable with? My first thought was that he had to be a plant for the performers to be sure the situation was containable and the act wouldn’t fall in a heap, but my date, highly experienced in this form of theatre, reckoned not.

Which brings us to control. Just as in stand-up comedy, the atmosphere in contemporary circus shows can be a little volatile. People are drinking and they are revved up. Shows such as Empire and La Soiree give people licence to drop their inhibitions; they encourage it. It’s a huge part of the allure. Most audience members know the game and how to play it. The boundaries may be a bit more flexible than those outside the tent, but people tend to be able to judge quite finely what level of abandon is acceptable.

But if they do overstep that invisible line the performers have to tidy things up, just as stand-up comedians have to deal with hecklers in a way that asserts their primacy over the heckler without losing the rest of the room. Indeed, in a way that wins over the room. It’s a quite delicate balance, even if it may not appear to be at the time. It requires a great deal of skill.

At Empire one of the comperes, Anne Goldmann, dealt abruptly with a young man who was making too insistent a noise and she came off as petulant and graceless. Those of us who were near him could see his companion trying to quieten him, and it looked very much as if he had some mild form of impairment. Goldmann, trying to perform, wouldn’t have been able to catch that, but when the two young men left and she shouted “Good riddance” at them, she was the one who came across badly. The put-down was schoolyard quality.

As I say, this is tricky territory. These shows invite raucous interaction with patrons and then have to deal with the consequences in a way that doesn’t rip the fabric of the show’s tone and fits in with the temperature and mood of the audience. Cabaret artist Meow Meow is extraordinarily adept at controlling her audience while acting in an extremely passive-aggressive manner, but then she is a goddess.

There is extensive audience participation in magic show The Illusionists 2.0, playing at the Sydney Opera House – all of it done extremely well and entered into most eagerly by patrons. I was impressed by the skilful handling of volunteers for the hypnotism section, a section of the show that is now, of course, absent due to the death on Saturday of hypnotist Scott Lewis.

I haven’t yet seen Oedipus Schmoedipus, the new show by small company Post in association with Belvoir and the Sydney Festival, but will mid-week and will be watching the non-professionals closely. Like The Piper, Oedipus is highly dependent on volunteers, a crew that changes with each performance. Unlike with The Piper, I gather the Oedipus volunteers don’t have to pay anything, but then they do have to turn up to a rehearsal. And there are 24 needed for each show. Phew!

Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, part of the About an Hour mini-fest within the Sydney Festival, is another theatre work that enlists audience members during the course of the show, but it needs only a few. Given that he’s performed the piece several hundred times it’s reasonable to assume Crouch doesn’t have much trouble getting the help he needs. But then none of the shows seem to have the slightest problem getting people up on stage. Everyone may be critic. Just about everyone also seems to harbour a hankering to be a performer.

La Soiree, Sydney Opera House, January 15-March 16

The Illusionists 2.0, Sydney Opera House, ends January 16

I, Malvolio, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 16-19.

The Piper, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, ends January 19

Oedipus Schmoedipus, Belvoir St Theatre, ends February 2

Empire, the Showring, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, ends February 16

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