Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Climbing the Fourth Wall

This morning I posted a piece that Washington Post Theatre Critic Peter Mark wrote for Arts Post about audience interaction. It spawned a really interesting discussion on Facebook. I thought it was worth posting here so others could catch up, chime in, or just check out some of the other great articles people linked to within the conversation. Have more to say on the subject? Feel free to share it in the comments below.


Jenny McConnell Frederick I'm with Peter. If I wanted to be in the play, I'd be an actor. At Rorschach, there's more than one way around that 4th wall:

Arts Post - A theatrical manifesto: hands off the audience!

Michael Glenn Then what's the point of seeing a play? Why not just rent the movie?

William Aitken I agree with Peter on this one. I dont go to the theater to be brought up on stage. When I want to be on stage I audition.

Jenny McConnell Frederick b/c I believe it's possible to be totally invested and engaged in a live experience without physically being asked to participate. And I think in many cases, that forced interaction has the opposite effect--taking people out of the experience they were invested in.

Elissa Goetschius Hmmm... Where did I just read this? Oh, right! The NY Times!

Sara Barker in total agreement . . . there are people for whom a night at the theatre can be a wonderful entry into a vivid and exciting world and who, when approached like that from an actor, feel assaulted and undone. It's about respect. Perhaps, if a play is written with audience interaction, there can be a warning or a designated area for those who are interested in it to sit themselves . . .

Jenny McConnell Frederick yeah, Elissa--that piece covers a lot of what i'm talking about, and you're right Sara...having a clear contract with the audience upfront seem like it goes a long way in earning their trust. It seems like we as artists could think more deeply about how to gain the investment of our audiences without insisting on their participation.

Michael Grew While PM paints with way too broad a brush, there's plenty of times this kind of thing hasn't worked for me at all. I think it generally stems from whether it's being done for the play or for the audience; when the interaction stems from the production wanting to make the audience uncomfortable or thinking it'll make them pay more attention, I think it's obvious and comes off as forced.

As a sidenote, one of the things I absolutely hate most in the world is when anyone pulls that "Good morning!...Let's try that again, GOOD MORNING! That's better." bullshit.

Deborah Randall What is the job of the critic, though? Is it to define how theatre should be interpreted as a noun or is it to review the work at hand?

Jonathon Church I am surprised that so many of you don't understand audience interaction. I agree with Mark K in the comments, it's about timing and execution. Theatre for young audiences, for example, is helped by interaction. The kids know that they can take part in this live event and be as big a deal as the performers that everybody else is watching. It makes it exciting and memorable, and draws a sharp distinction between fun, vital, interactive and experiential theatre and stuffy old museum plays where everybody sits quiet and learns something, or else! Shakespearean audiences were routinely brought into the action to keep the play vital and engaging. ASC routinely uses this style and I performed with it for two years, visibly delighting probably 90% of the audiences I personally talked to, touched, questioned, and hid behind. Occasionally it went wrong, or the audience member didn't want to be involved, but most of the audiences, young and old, were familiar with our style and jostled to be down front and part of the action.

Like the time the whip got caught in the grid in a production Marat/Sade at Forum theatre, audiences love to be there on the night something unique happens. A mistake, an improv, a grumpy theatre critic crying about his stolen notepad, it reinforces the live and ephemeral nature of theatre. Seriously, sit home and watch a movie and lock all your doors if you don't want to interact with people. Get on your computer and click away. Stare at the floor in an elevator ride. But don't go to the theatre. Those are real live human beings telling a story, and sometimes that story needs to reach out and touch people, to break that forth wall, to make people realize that yes we can hear your cell phone and yes we see you texting, and yes we are doing something here and if you can let yourself be part of the moment, something wonderful and adrenaline filled might be coming at you or your neighbors at any second. We aren't going to press pause on this story so you can go tinkle, it's living and breathing and you better pay attention. We are going to bring it home to you if that's what we think needs to be done and it serves the play. Is it right for Death of a Salesman? Probably not. But Caucasian Chalk Circle or Mother Courage, Richard III or Midsummer Night's Dream? You bet. You over here, and us over there, doesn't bring the audience into the action and sometimes that is what is required. Sometimes all you need is thrust, or in the round, staging for the audience to 'get it'. And sometimes you can go a little farther. Sometimes it can only detract and you are better off with fourth wall and proscenium intact.

Audience interaction is a tool of the theatre professional, and like any other tool, it's not required every time and it's misuse can look pretty terrible. But it shouldn't be completely discarded as the article, and many of these comments, suggest. I suggest any of you who don't want to be jostled or recognized during your time in the audience just sit in the back, or better yet, in the lobby, watching on the monitor.

I can't wait till next week when Petermarks wants strict rules on making eye contact with the audience (Richard III was looking at my wife!), salad sneeze guards for the lip of the stage(those actors spit when they talk!), and lip synced performances (he didn't use the exact words in the text I have on my lap!). It's sad that this reputable critic doesn't get it, but it explains a bit about his reviews.

Jenny McConnell Frederick Audience engagement has its place and a lot of valid uses. And I saw some ASC shows when I was younger, and they're really great at what they do. And it truly works in a really powerful way. I get that, but it needs to be used judiciously and with purpose. For ASC and their mission, it makes sense.

I would argue that not everyone who's dragging the audience out of their seats has such a clear need for that kind of interaction in order to communicate their story.

I think it's hard for any of us who make a living in live theater to be objective about what impact audience interaction has on those who appreciate and support the work, but for whom theatre is not a way of life. Should the audience experience be our number one priority?--debatable. But is it worthy of consideration?--absolutely.

There are so many amazing things about the live experience--you mention a lot of them, Jonathan--the cell phone ringing, the unexpected experiences--the audience is by definition interacting with the work in live theatre. There's a wide range of possibility that exists between staying at home in front of your DVR and being pulled up on stage to perform for a crowd. I think we can have more faith in our medium to do what it does best.

Yasmin Tuazon I'm totally behind audience interaction/involvement if it fits the action or style of performance. If done right, it can be a very inclusive & connecting experience. (I think particularly of the way "Memoria Brassica" worked at the Source Festival.) There's also a difference between interacting with an audience and expecting them to participate.

The performer/audience relationship needs to be cultivated like any other. Boundaries & expectations need to be established. Performers need to (a) create a safe space for the audience, and (b) be savvy enough to involve only those who are game.

For performances where the goal is not audience comfort - that is fair game too. Most shows like this don't hide it, and I believe there's a certain "buyer beware" implicit.

At the end of the day, if the reason for the performer/audience relationship is clear and substantial, it can make for good theater. Otherwise, it's just another convention that, misused, can bore or annoy.

Jonathon Church Well, the extreme version of this where audience members are actually pulled up on stage is not something to take lightly, as you suggest. In my experience, it works best when you've kept it light, brief and them in the seats, looking for your eventual scene partner and not just diving in before gauging someone's openness to the moment. It gives them a chance to get used to it, and to telegraph their feelings about it. If they don't make eye contact, move on. If they look uncomfortable or embarrassed, move on(hopefully thanking/apologizing to them verbally or otherwise). Your enthusiastic audience members will be apparent after just a few brief asides and a small bit of eye contact. Sometimes your most enthusiastic audience members can be the last ones you want on stage, as they have their own idea about what's going to happen next.

I would agree that not everybody who is doing this is doing it right or needs to be doing it. That can apply to any area of theatre though. Petermarks seems to suggest that it is all bad because he doesn't want it or has had bad experiences. Everybody has their opinion. His is louder than most. But no matter who suggested it, would we as quickly get rid of the use of footlights, stage makeup, strobes, smoking, stage combat, or any number of things which when done poorly make the whole enterprise look bad or the audience feel uncomfortable?

I think we can have "more faith in our medium to do what it does best" by understanding in the first place what we are trying to do. Our medium is a wide and varied place with a variety of skill levels, training and subscribers/audience expectation. Let's not decide to only do modern plays because some inexperienced high schoolers did Julius Caesar poorly, for instance.

I find it surprising that Peter Marks doesn't seem to see this distinction or has never seen audience interaction work. The fact that the denizens of the Zinoplex may have been wholly unprepared and resistant to it is not surprising though.

I wonder what you are hinting at about Rorschach's way around that fourth wall. Other than non-traditional spaces, I can't recall anything too fourth wall breaking in past productions. Performing in a fountain or a greenhouse or a metro is non-traditional, performing in an arts complex blackbox in the round isn't so much. You just change the shape and location of the fourth wall.

Des Kennedy what a great discussion! Well done Jenny (and Peter). here is an interesting article from this side of the pond...

Joel Reuben Ganz There are clearly Many different angles on this argument. And both sides have valid concerns. the use of audience interaction can be a powerful tool, or a distraction from what you are trying to accomplish. But it certainly depends on What the objective of the piece is, and then How one employs the technique/s of breaking the 4th wall.

P.Marks simplistic and reactionary article is one sided, unevaluative, and dismissive of what can be a powerful and useful technique in theatre. If all art and theatre are presented in ONE way, is that art? and if audiences are Always allowed their safe space, are artists doing their jobs?

Jenny McConnell Frederick

With regard to Rorschach, my comment was an admittedly oblique reference to conversations we've had internally about the future of the company. Less a reference to our past work--though I'd say we're pretty consistent about not asking our audiences to perform for us.

That being said, in this thread (and others about this article from Peter), it seems many are affronted by his post. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the piece is a blog post--a vent, a rant even, about an accumulation of recent personal experiences as an audience member. I seriously doubt that Peter truly thinks all kinds of audience interaction should be banned. I take it less as an insult from the Washington Post critic, and more as a compelling launching point for a really valid conversation.

The article Des just posted has a lot of good examples. There are a lot of amazing things happening right now. Anyone who's been within feet of me in the last six months has heard me extolling the amazing experience I had at SLEEP NO MORE this winter. And that piece is actually a great example one way that an audience experience can be totally interactive--the audience is throughly submerged in the experience, but is virtually never called upon to perform. And that for me, is an important distinction.

Joel Reuben Ganz

I think that Peter's article, even considered as a "provocation"(which is a great way to inspire dialogue about art and How we do what we do), is a bit short sighted.
Even in Blog format, one would expect The main theatre critic in our area
to seek to present an argument that has balance and creates the space for a discussion, such as the one that many of us are engaging in here.
it would be great to think that he would be involved in this discussion.

alas, as with a lot of the reviews he writes, i find it lacking in perspective and evaluative thought.

as the head of a fantastic company that has always worked to examine the bounds of theatre and presentation, i'm aware that you are open to these experiments, and see the validity in all sides.

this discussion is good fun.
and i also enjoyed Des' link very much. i've read a bunch about the theatre in London and what they are playing with in this regard.

Matthew Frederick And I wonder what Jonathan is hinting at when he says that someone who has a different opinion of audience interaction doesn't understand it. Perhaps you can explain to me why my interaction should end once you've "invited" me onstage. At that point I'm part of the show and I assume my actions aren't scripted. Or are we still talking about children's theatre?

Jonathon Church I don't think I understand what you are saying in your final two sentences, Matt. I don't think that someone who has a different opinion of it doesn't understand, I think that anybody who has the opinion that it should be stopped, always and forever in every case, doesn't understand. And I think your interaction should *begin* once I've "invited" you to be onstage, not end.

Matthew Frederick And that certainly could be unpredictable depending on what sort of audience member/performer shows up that night.

Jonathon Church Yeah! And that is exhilarating.

Wyckham Avery this sounds like every production meeting at dog & pony dc... We like to call what we do "audience integration" because we too kinda hate the idea of being *pulled* on to stage, we do however love the idea of being *invited* in to the play somehow. Too often, as an audience member I am freaking BORED because I feel like the playmakers forgot there was an audience. So, basically I am saying "you're all pretty" or really, I think you are all correct. Live theatre should be alive and connecting with the audience and we as makers of this art should step up and find out how we do it, and not just assume the audience will like it cuz we worked wicked hard on it. Damn you Peter Marks for making us have a great conversation on FB!!

Rachel Grossman So thrilled to read eveyone's comments here. A parallel, separate but similar conversation engaged over my posting as well. Thanks Jenny and all for tackling this topic so awesomely. Giving me tons to think on.