Monday, March 21, 2011

"I pay money to be wowed"

Audience participation: a squeamish and risky event that can be seriously disconcerting for audience members.  When performers signal that participation is part of the show most people in the audience feel as if they would rather die than risk the potential humiliation of being included in the performance. However in the Auckland season of Jerome Bel's The Show Must Go On this tendency towards coy diffidence went into convulsions exposing  individual responses ranging from playful dancing, teasing, joyous generosity, stony passive -aggressive silence, multiple walkouts, ugly demands, and even outright hostility.  


As a performance piece Bel's 10 year old work could be a long lost theatrical cousin  of John Cages '4,33' in which silences were used as the compositional materials. Minimal and rigorous, the choreography exposes and deconstructs the banalities and conventions of bourgeois theatre. As a performer the minimal action left me feeling very exposed, however the strict adherence to the tasks in each section was a solid anchor. That anchorage underpinned the camaraderie of the 20 strong cast but it did nothing to prepare us for our audiences.   


The tech-dress was an open rehearsal to which people had been invited, friends of the cast and students mostly. Most were youngish, and all had come to watch for free. As we performed the applause was generously heaped upon us and the laughter was so abundant that I began to suspect that people thought the show was a series of gags and were missing the point. It became very difficult not to play each scene for the laughs. Afterwards I felt a mixture of elation, shock (at the intensity and volume of audience reaction as playful as it was), and a vague trepidation about the official opening night. With tickets prices $32-57 I guessed that other tensions would be activated.    


One of the choreographic assistants who'd recreated The Show on a New Zealand cast confided that he had felt frightened as he sat amongst the opening night crowd. The tone of the rapidly growing murmurs quickly became very patronising.  After the performers entered and performed the 3rd section In the third section a jeeringly sarcastic cat call "REALLY GOOD!" was yelled out by one man who later walked out. At the end of that performance there were people giving us a standing ovation, and others who were boo-ing. In the foyer afterwards I began to hear stories about overheard conversations such as a group of middle aged woman who muttered about writing a letter of complaint to the festival. The following day when I repeated some of the stories to two friends they both refused to believe me. Fair call. As a performer I saw some New Zealand audiences activated in ways and degrees I've never before experienced.  


From side stage on the second night we could hear  the audience talking at cafe volume level,  which they kept up throughout the entire show. Onstage we had no way of gauging positivity or negativity from this. But it felt at one point as if the psychological age of the audience had been collectively lowered to that of a naughty classroom of students happily engaging in consequence free chatter because the teacher wasn't there to tell them off. This was perplexing but they were not hostile.  As I stood front of stage in a line with 20 performers looking out into an audience who were looking back at us the lights brought the audience clearly into view creating an expanded sense of 'us'. Some people began smiling, some put on sunglasses, some waved, one woman shielded her face with a program, but mostly they talked to each other as they have throughout the entire performance. However on the second night they began to stand up intermittently as if rising to some kind of throw down. Then they began dancing, and cheering. Dancing for themselves, each other, us. The Mercury Theatre turned into a kind of gospel church at that point with a community of converts and performers on stage and off. 


Closing night they were quiet, this worried me. However as soon as we stepped on stage three women in the audience began dancing, there were another three who simply got up and left together. Overall this group was quieter than previous nights but still had its fair share of extroverts whose sense of entitlement to be entertained was evident during the show including a comment that has become my personal favourite "I pay money to be wowed". 


‎"At the performances of The Show Must Go On in Paris at Theatre de la Ville there are stage invasions, interventions, slow hand claps. J says he got the message: if you do not dominate this audience, they will try to kill you." (Tim Etchells). 

For me the experience of performing The Show became a bizarre and enjoyable social experiment. Unusual audience dynamics emerged from a provocation of almost nothingness. The piece activated an uncommon register of conversation and behaviour from audience members who seemed surprisingly compelled to amplify their presence and break the unspoken normative conventions of politeness and respectfulness that tend to govern crowd behaviour in a theatre.