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

Room of Regret, Life and Times: Episodes 1-4

Room of Regret, Theatre Works, St Kilda, October 27

Life and Times: Episodes 1-4, Melbourne Arts Centre, October 26

THE Rabble’s Room of Regret could have been expressly ordered by the Melbourne Festival to illustrate the essential unknowability of the critical process. As part of the festival’s investigation into the art of the critic I took part in a forum on criticism in the digital age and, predictably, at the end someone asked how could one trust reviews when there is such lack of agreement. It’s easy to laugh at the apparent naivety of the question but in fact it encapsulates the situation beautifully. Yes, there is glorious lack of agreement and no, you can’t trust opinion if you equate it with fact. We all have our own perceptions, influences, experiences and knowledge to bring to our reception of a performance, and by all, I mean all audience members, including critics.

Emily Milledge in The Rabble's Room of Regret. Photo: David Paterson

Emily Milledge in The Rabble’s Room of Regret. Photo: David Paterson

Room of Regret got a one-star review from Byron Bache in The Herald-Sun (“There are actors in it, but to name them would be to shame them…”) and one and a half stars from Cameron Woodhead in The Age (“… Emma Valente’s direction doesn’t rise to the occasion, leaving the actors running around shrieking …”). Artshub’s Mileta Rien (“haunting, thought-provoking, daring”) gave it five out of five and on The Guardian’s website Jane Howard went for four stars (“… an endlessly complex and intoxicating production…”).

On the ABC’s arts site Alison Croggon described the theatre-making as “bold, confident and often surreally striking”. All praise to the ABC for not succumbing to the idiotic star-rating system (The Age and The Guardian should be ashamed of themselves), although I must admit those glib little pronouncements help illustrate my point here. From one star to five: now that’s a reason all by itself to go to a show.

Room of Regret is a fractured version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, created by The Rabble’s founders Emma Valente and Kate Davis. The novel is so highly perfumed as to be exceptionally hard-going these days. Even so, its ideas of transgression, performance, transformation, possession of body and soul and the elevation of beauty to an object of worship time-travel with ease to the 21st century. I can understand why Valente and Davis find the work so fascinating and admire the way in which they go about seeking theatrical images and language to capture its spirit. They are by no means entirely successful, but there is gallantry and purpose in their attempt and moments of great pleasure.

On entering the small foyer at Theatre Works in St Kilda the audience member is given a ticket with a coloured sticker to indicate which of four groups she or he must join. Take note of the “must”. It’s often suggested that traditional theatre, with its “stage here, audience there and fourth wall separation between the two”, imposes a strict and old-fashioned level of control over the passive audience. It’s certainly a tenacious model. American iconoclasts the Living Theatre were trying to smash through the boundaries as long ago as the 1960s and on occasion, if the stories are to be believed, actors had sex with members of the audience. Now that’s immersive theatre. (The Living Theatre closed its doors in New York in February this year, its founder Judith Malina heading to a retirement home.)

There is a strong level of control at Room of Regret too (some simulated sex between actors but none with the audience, I believe I can safely say, simulated or otherwise). You go with the group you are given, you accept the veil placed on your head, you sit where indicated, you go with a performer when beckoned (if you are one of those chosen, as I was) and sit down again when your private experience is over. Unless you are extremely confident, Room of Regret would not be an easy show to leave.  I hasten to say I had no desire to leave. I merely suggest that theatre such as Room of Regret quite understandably has its organisational structure, and it’s not terribly different to the old one but with the actors much closer than usual.

Speaking of control, I have never felt more oppressed in this regard than at a New York performance of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, a response to Macbeth with which Room of Regret has some similarities, albeit on a much smaller scale. There is the occupation of multiple spaces, the requirement that faces be covered, the impossibility for an audience member to see the whole piece from one perspective although a repeat visit may show an alternative perspective, the physical closeness of the performers and the suggestion that the performance space may also be regarded as an art installation. The Rabble, however, handles its audience in a far more respectful fashion than does Punchdrunk, or at least in my experience. There was a gentleness in their approach and touch that I found very sweet. Is that Melbourne versus New York? Perhaps.

The 90 minutes of Room of Regret unfold in a multi-roomed set (by Davis) delightfully strewn with golden petals; many of the production’s images are very striking indeed. The walls are flimsy plywood against which the audience sits, their backs sometimes pummelled by the action taking place on the other side. The walls make reasonable enough screens on which that action is transmitted via video to those unable to see it directly; text is often spoken into microphones to carry it around the whole space, although I found the sound system muddy, leading more to incomprehension than intrigue.

The actors dash from space to space, occasionally plucking a person from the audience for some quiet time or a dance. Key moments from The Picture of Dorian Grey are enacted, interpreted and often repeated. Text is taken from the novel and from other sources: Gertrude Stein, Amanda McBroom (she wrote the song The Rose, which gets an airing). Dorian is played by two actors (Pier Carthew and Alex McQueen) and Lord Henry Wotton by a woman (Mary Ellen Sassman).

As you can see, Valente, who directs, has plenty of ideas to offer, but unfortunately not quite the resources to make them into an experience that transcends its surface attractions. I found myself projecting on to the performance what Valente may be searching for rather than feeling a sense of intense communion with it. Partly that’s because technically Room of Regret is a bit rough while depending on technology to speak to the whole audience; partly it’s because the text is at times less poetically resonant than it aspires to be; a lot of it is because the five actors – the others are David Harrison as the artist Basil Hallward and Emily Milledge doubling as Sibyl Vane and a boy – have varying degrees of command. The men come out of it much better than the women.

There are critics who above all appreciated the drive, ambition and purpose of Valente and Davis’s vision. There are others for whom shortcomings obscured all else. I’m right there in the middle.

A PIECE of theatre you could leave without too much fuss was Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, and some people did exercise their right. How funny people are, and how bewildering. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that you’d do a bit of homework if you’d put down your money (or accepted an invitation) for a theatre marathon that got you seated at 2pm and finally released you out at 12.15am. You’d want to know a bit about what you were in for, no?

Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Life and Times. Photo: Anna Stocher Pressebild

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times. Photo: Anna Stocher Pressebild

You’d discover that Life and Times is verbatim theatre based on telephone calls with a member of the company, Kristin Worrall. She was asked just one thing: to talk about her life. Which she did, starting with first consciousness and digressing wherever and whenever, as we all do when trying to remember stuff. And the most cursory research would reveal that the verbatim text, delivered in performance by all members of the group, includes all the ums, all the ahs, all the likes, all the whatevers, all those little locutions that give us a moment to think or to prevaricate or to backtrack or change track or zone out for a bit, or to just give a sentence the right shape. Worrall, by the way, is in the core group of performers, playing flute and glockenspiel and occasionally jumping up to sing. How mind-blowing must it be for her?

Well, as I said earlier, we all see things differently so perhaps the walkouts did know a bit about Life and Times but it didn’t work out for them in the flesh. It certainly did for me. Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 was one of the great and glorious theatrical experiences of my very lengthy theatre-going life. In the hands of Nature Theater of Oklahoma the quotidian details of a life are made thrilling and important – made into a musical, in fact, in parts 1 and 2; an Agatha Christie-style thriller in parts 3 and 4 – as they describe discoveries, joys, humiliations and embarrassments common to us all. The triggers for one’s own memory are powerful and deeply, deeply affecting.

On one level this is an incredibly simple idea and yet it requires a high level of virtuosity in performance. The text is far from linear, there are all those interpolated sounds that are vital to the rhythm of the piece and the dance, while not difficult in itself, is extremely repetitive, until it is not. No wonder that, opera-style, sections have a prompter. Surprisingly no choreographer is credited, so presumably the movement is the work of cast and co-directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s founders. The moves are from eurythmics, rhythmic gymnastics and chorus line formations with a touch of marching band vibe and there’s also quite a lot of bobbing up and down. (In Part 2 the main performers, 10 in number, were augmented by a chorus of eight, found and rehearsed locally. They were great.)

I must acknowledge I didn’t quite understand the late appearance in Episode 4 of two creatures from outer space, but I was very tired by this point. I’d be so very happy to have another go at this delightfully mad, intensely absorbing and unique (how often can one assert that?) piece of theatre.

In September The New York Times reported seeing episodes 4.5 and 5 of Life and Times. The former is a half-hour animated film and episode 5 is a book given to each audience member. “The ideal time frame in which to peruse the book, we were told, was 44 minutes and 27 seconds,” wrote the NYT’s Charles Isherwood. And why these radical departures from earlier form? Apparently most of the telephone conversation that was to form the basis of the next instalments was lost in a technical glitch. But for Nature Theater of Oklahoma, another door simply opened.

Room of Regret ends on November 3.