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October 13, 2010


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I really, really don't like being brought on stage. that said, I do like breaking the fourth wall. I like when actors talk to me in plays.

How about artists just do whatever serves their play?


I'm one of those people who'd rather be left alone, but I'm all about creating more intimacy in the space. I like being close to the performers (like with Fuerzabruta), but my space bubble is very much a real boundary.

In other words, just don't touch me or put me on the spot.


As one who has never minded being roped into a performance, I know that as a director I can be a bit insensitive about audience participation in my shows. I have to remind myself that, for many people, it's not cute or fun like it is for me. In fact, it can ruin a person's experience entirely.

That said, I really, really love breaking that fourth wall. I think the best, though, is when the audience is somehow incorporated into the production without having attention uncomfortably called to them; when the fourth wall is built around the entire audience. A subtle awareness that for this period of time they inhabit the same world as the performers before (or around) them.


This issue gets at the difference in mindset between those engaged with performance on an intellectual or participatory level, and everyone else. It's easier to understand the issue looking at typical rock concert-goers. The music may be designed to encourage dancing, say, but the majority of people stand and watch, perhaps swaying a bit. Contrast this with the sort of musical events you tend to find in Africa or Latin America, say, where the line between audience and performance is thin or non-existent. Western performers, I feel, want to reclaim this -- to de-comidify their performance, and also, simply, to show their audience that they too can be artists. And, of course, there's the notion that subscribing to some strict code of fourth wall etiquette is contrary to playful and rule-breaking spirit of theater.

This is where it gets interesting, though, because Peter Marks observes, theater IS a commodity with paying customers (or a service if you like). Is it right, then, to forcibly modify the behavior of your audience?

I would say there isn't an ethical issue, because performers have no obligation to provide a disclaimer for everything that might upset their audiences. Further, half the fun of theater is the surprise of being moved unexpectedly, which might result from the content of the play (unexpected sex or violence, say), or from some participatory event. There have definitely been times when I've been called to participate and not wanted to, but the more I think about it, the more this seems like a personal shortcoming, not something theater companies should avoid.

Timothy Childs

It's never fun to watch someone be dragged up on stage who is totally uncomfortable with being up there. Then again, some people delight in their stage debut and are a total hoot. Short answer: audience participation is a mixed bag.

But I entirely agree with RVCbard: the more intimate the better. That's the best way to make the audience feel 'involved.'

- Timothy Childs


If you want me on stage, I need money, rehearsals and health insurance. Period.


I tend to be pretty game, so I can enjoy some good interactive theater. But it has to be, well, good. The involvement of the audience has to be purposeful and well thought-out -- and not pressurized.

Moreover, as an audience member, I need to know just what is expected of me. I'm totally happy to be part of the fun, but I don't want to be put on the spot. I don't want to feel pressured to be charming or funny. I don't want to feel like I'm driving with no road map -- and I don't want to worry that I'll mess up the performance if I don't go in the "right" direction. If the actors are leading and I'm following? Cool, it's all just part of the ride. If I suddenly have to lead? Well ... I don't know where to go. And no one likes to feel that way during an event that should be FUN.

Josh James

modern theatre? as if it never happened in the old days?


Tony Adams

There's also a huge difference between breaking the fourth wall and dragging someone up on stage.


It all depends on whether or not it suits the rules of the play. If it doesn't, it's really annoying. If it does, it's a blast. For example, Carrie Fisher's show (which surprisingly, was actually pretty good) at Roundabout was, for the most part, a monologue directed toward the audience. In one part, she played teacher explaining the sexual liasons of the Fishers and the Reynolds. The audience members/students she gave medals to for correctly answering ridiculous questions, were delighted. Keep in mind though, that these people were in the front row. They were clearly big fans and had paid more than the rest of the audience. I'm not sure if she would have had the same result had she asked the questions of someone in the balcony.


To those who say they are uncomfortable being drawn into the show I would wonder if they would be better suited to film. Isn't theater supposed to upend the audience and push the envelope? Isn't this all it has left to offer as an important, unique art form? Immediacy, spectacle, and phenomenon? This is of course as long as it serves a purpose in the performance. I think it would be sad if theater always just left us alone in our seats, left to maintain our opinions and our comfort. I could spend a lot less money to sit hidden in the back of a dark theater.


There was a staging of "Offending the Audience" at my college back in the day, which has pervasive audience interaction in a dated confrontational manner. It was horrid for numerous reasons. I remember one actor making their way back to the stage found my leg slightly in the way, hesitated, and then remembering the sort of play going on, gave my leg a good shove. Aside from the irritation of being shoved in general, I found it particularly irritating because I thought "The really appropriate response right now would be to trip or kick this actor. The irony is that I won't because it wouldn't be sporting, even though the whole point of the show is not to be sporting." I think this is just an anecdotal backing up of SashaNaomi; all is fair if it's in the Rules of the Show, so take care in how you construct them.

Andy Horwitz

I'm more curious to know if Young Jean Lee is aware that some theater company in DC is apparently massacring her play? I've seen SONGS OF THE DRAGONS in multiple forms throughout its development and NEVER has there been any audience participation! I think YJ would be horrified.



I'm interested to hear you square this with your love of Van Hove. Directorial interpretation for me but not for thee? The small amount of audience participation (having people hold up a piece of scenery) described in this review does not strike me as doing violence to Young Jean's play.


My favorite anecdote along these lines is from Harold Pinter, who was in the audience at one of the typical late-1960s Living Theatre-type "happenings." When one of the actors came into the audience during the show, in an attempt to confront/involve members of the audience, and began to head in Pinter's direction, Harold shot him a withering glance (as only Pinter could--I can almost see it now) and the fellow slinked away, embarrassed and slightly terrified.

Ian Thal

The "fourth wall" is merely a convention. One can revere it or break it competently, incompetently, with purpose, or without.

Contrast this with the sort of musical events you tend to find in Africa or Latin America, say, where the line between audience and performance is thin or non-existent. Western performers, I feel, want to reclaim this -- to de-comidify their performance,


I think you need to get out of the seminar hall and into the music hall more often.

The anti-dance attitude amongst many rockers comes from a number of things: Dance music is often seen as the most commodified form of pop music-- rock is perceived by its fans as more pure and authentic because it's not about getting the butts grinding. The communal aspect is pushed forward by the anthemic nature of many of much of the repertoire or the way by which certain lyrics become shibboleths. It's also the way certain subcultures (which group around musical styles) deliberately try to differentiate themselves from other subcultures by not doing certain things. Punks rarely want to be seen as competent dancers if they dance at all. Hippies might dance but they tend to avoid anything with structured, formalized technique, et cetera.

The idea that somehow the line between the audience and performers is thin or non-existent in Latin-America or Africa, is silly. The performers are the people on the stage or playing instruments whom the audience has come to see and here. Artists who are trying to make a living (or at least pick up a little extra cash) no matter what country they hail from recognize this as academic babble.

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