“In the true theatre a play disturbs the senses’ repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolution (which moreover can have its full effect only if it remains virtual), and imposes on the assembled collectivity an attitude that is both difficult and heroic.” -Antoine Artaud
I had the unique pleasure of having Barbara Robertson, a veteran Chicago actor who can currently be seen in the Goodman Theatre’s Camino Real, sitting in on one of my rehearsals for Kabuki Lady Macbeth a few weeks ago, and she said something very interesting to the cast as we gathered around her at the end of our run. “The audience wants to go with you, they want to take the journey with you, but you have to invite them in. If you go 60% of the way to them, they’ll give you the other 40% and meet you there.” It was a concept that made perfect sense, and I’ve been considering how audiences are incorporated into live theatre since that evening.
For four years I’ve been training to be an actor, which is ultimately training yourself to connect with people for the biggest H/R job that exists on the planet, and the those moments where I’ve “forgotten” the audience was watching because I was so “in it” in my scene are the moments that I’ve been striving to get to. Because if I was so engaged with my scene partner on-stage, then that meant that I was really “Acting” and the audience would see what a good actor I was and they would like me and so on and so forth until I’m famous.
A few recent experiences have me questioning the role of the audience in live theatre, and this question is a big part of why I want to re-open The Defiant.
First, I had the opportunity in New York City to see Sleep No More, a fully immersive, interactive re-telling of Macbeth set in a lavish hotel in the 1920’s. The show, produced by the British company Punchdrunk, has it’s audience walking around a five story warehouse converted into the McKittrick Hotel, with the performers moving from room to room and floor to floor acting out the story. What this means, is that you as an audience member have a choice of who you follow and what you see. And this is not a sit back in your seat with a gin and tonic type production. It’s a full on sprint to keep up with Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. The performers can reach out and grab you, and often do, to dance or whisper in your ear. (Lady Macbeth grabbed me after Duncan’s murder and the subsequent fight with her husband and whispered to me, “My hands are of your color, yet I shame to wear a heart so white.” Hecate gave me a ring she produced from a piece of passionfruit, I’m still trying to figure that one out…). The show was supposed to have a two month run, and they’ve been performing for a year straight at this point. Why? Because they force the audience to engage. Every audience member is given a mask and ENCOURAGED to explore rooms, drawers, alley-ways. They’re given free run at a theatrical playground and as a result, each person’s experience is unique and memorable.
A few months after Sleep No More, I saw Burning Bluebeard at The Neo-Futurists. The show is a recounting of the Iroquis Theatre Fire that killed nearly 500 audience members, and one performer in 1903 Chicago. The show begins with the performers of the show at the Iroquis that day climbing out of body-bags and asking the audience’s permission to put on the play, in an attempt to get to the second act and prevent the fire from happening. The premise itself is haunting, a troupe of theatre artists trying desperately to prevent the fire that killed their audience. In typical Neo-Futurist style, the audience is pulled, poked, sat on and coerced into becoming part of the production. There was no ignoring their presence, and their engagement with us automatically made us engage with them.
Finally, this past Thursday I attended a preview of Cascabel at Lookingglass Theatre. The production, co-produced and co-directed by Lookingglass ensemble members Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman and James Beard Award winning chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill/Topolobambo/Xoco. The show blended circus acts, a love story and chef Bayless’s incredible cooking into an evening of theatrical amazement. Not only was the audience eating as the characters were served their meals in the story, but during those times, the cast members would walk among the communal tables set out on the main floor, chatting, asking how the food was, commenting on what went on moments before and generally integrating themselves with the audience. What worked about Cascabel, besides the amazing food, was the fact that there was no fourth wall. So when Tony Hernandez is walking on a wire above the heads of one of the tables, he wasn’t pretending those people weren’t there. He was acknowledging that he may in fact fall onto them (he didn’t.). There was a danger and a reality to that performance across the board. It wasn’t the audience sitting, watching and eat. It was the audience and the performers spending time together in an engaged, relaxed and entirely realistic way.
So how does all of this fit together? I’ve come to think that theatre can no longer be about the performers confined to stage, and audience confined to their chairs. We must engage audiences, directly, openly and as ourselves (or ourselves inside our characters) during performance. While we have them and while they’re still awake. I know, I know. Audience participation is just the worst. But not really. I’m not asking anyone to jump through hoops.
I’m just asking that you give me that 40%. We’ll do the rest.