The Audience Agenda
Although I’ve yet to trek north of the border myself, one of the apparent talking points of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe seems to be regarding Ontroerend Goed’s Audience, and its treatment of audience members as participants. As divisive as the show is (Laura Barnett hated it; Philip Fisher implores you all to see it), this direct engagement with audiences reflects a growing trend in performance to do away with the fourth wall and to challenge audiences to become directly engaged in what is played out in front of them.
Stories emerging from Edinburgh tell of audience members shouting and swearing at the actor involved in the systematically bullying of a young girl singled out in the audience (genuine or plant? – there are conflicting stories), where the actions stir them from being passive and independent to becoming connected and supportive of their fellow patrons; even after being reminded of the ‘rules’ of being a theatre audience in the opening minutes of the piece, they have in fact been drawn into breaking them. The methods are crude and justifiably perceived by many as unacceptable, but the perceived notion of what is acceptable behaviour for an audience has been subverted for the purpose of this performance.
The experience offered in Audience seems to share some similarities to Tim Crouch’s The Author; both pieces aim to provoke their audience into reacting to what is happening on-stage – but both still share a desire to retain some control over it. Whilst touring with The Author, Chris Goode used his blog to recount his experiences and one particular entry stands out – relating to a performance in Bristol where an audience member stood and asked a question regarding an earlier scene, affecting the momentum of the piece and the impact of the scene being performed. Goode raises a point which sheds light on one of the difficulties in engaging in such a performance – do audiences exist on an active/passive binary? As much as the construct of a performance can try to lead audiences one way or another, ultimately the uniqueness of each audience and its members means it is impossible to control what happens – as The Author risked moments of undesirable intervention, so to does Audience. Furthermore, what is to stop audiences in such a production storming out of a performance and breaking the illusion?
As Goode points out, there is the caveat to consider that the performance is a constructed event; even when being challenged with regards to how they choose to respond, the audience will on some level be aware that they have been issued with a ticket to the event in question and been permitted to attend. In theory at least, this should ensure that there will remain a point where their engagement and response may be inhibited; just as watching events unfold on television permit a level of safety and no need to have to react to what is unfolding, audiences have the capacity to remind themselves that what they are watching is a form of entertainment. They have the right to disengage or even leave at any time, and cannot be forced to interact.
Whilst the decision to leave is often an uncomfortable one, it is at least more straightforward as a member of a more static, seated audience; it is a different matter altogether when watching a promenade performance. Depending on the level of engagement between performers and audience, sometimes it may be incredibly easy to just drift away from the pack without being noticed – whereas other times it may be altogether a different matter. Badac Theatre’s The Factory at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe thrust its audience directly into the heart of the performance – guiding them through the experience of the final hours of those at Auschwitz concentration camp, and putting them alongside performers who played the roles of Holocaust victims; within such an intense performance, the prospect of leaving would have been a difficult decision to make. Do you affect the experience of other audience members? Do you allow yourself to be drawn into the illusion, and suffer the consequences in order to understand what life in that situation must have been like? Can such an experience take you to a place where you can forget it is a performance at all?
As with Audience, productions such as The Factory can tread a very fine moral line – calling into question what is acceptable to put an audience through, and whether or not using such historical events as the basis for a performance is exploitative and devaluing. Arguably, there is not right or wrong answer to such questions; the decision must be made by each audience member how they feel, and they have the right to vote with their feet should they feel strongly enough to do so – no matter how much performers try to make it difficult for them to do so.