I’ve Never Enjoyed Audience Participation Until Self-Isolation Changed My Mind

Writing tips
Lauren Wimmer

It’s one of my biggest fears. Whenever it happens, I feel my heart beat faster. My stomach drops. I start to feel a bead of sweat form at the top of my brow—the left one, to be exact. I look for an exit, knowing that I can’t escape. It’s too late. An actor on stage made eye contact with me, gesturing me to join them. I look down to break their gaze. Ask anyone but me!

This theatrical tool called “audience participation” is horrifying. It’s my worst nightmare. Once onstage, you feel powerless, because the actor is in control, not you. And that is, well, scary for someone like me: a playwright who was once a performer, but who is still a shy, introverted person at the core. A person who goes to the theatre to sit and watch and think and maybe wonder about what train(s) to take home as her mind drifts off.

But that was me then and this is me now.

In my apartment quarantining—or “Laurentining,” the eponymous version—I wish I could replay those awkward moments in the audience as an open and willing participant. I recently found myself watching The Real Housewives of New York City, hoping that during a brawl over back tattoos one of the housewives would turn to the camera and yell at me. It was at this moment that I realized that I was missing the one thing I had always loathed: audience participation.

I must admit a secret to those who haven’t seen my work: I include audience participation in my own plays. I know that this may come as a surprise, but I’ve found engaging with the audience in this way can further interrogate the theses of my plays, works that explore loneliness and the power of community.

When we’re able to gather once again, the world will not be normal. The “normal” we once knew is gone. Looking ahead, here are some ways to incorporate audience participation into your work in the new world.

What’s the Purpose?

Yes, it’s totally cool to have your audience participate in a giant game of Simon Says, but does it illuminate the play? What does the audience symbolize in the play? The townspeople? A class of kindergartners? Rice-puffed cereal? Legos? Make sure it’s clear to you as the writer who or what the audience represents and how that relates to your play. This will help you determine if audience participation is necessary.

Ask for Consent

So, you’re in the rehearsal process, and you anticipate that there will be an audience not only seeing the show but taking part in it. The audience should have a say if they want to take part.

Empowering audience members to have a choice to participate or not will create an equitable environment.

Have a Plan B

What happens if one audience member says, “No,” followed by another audience member saying, “Nah, I’m good,” followed by another audience member saying, “Not in the mood”? Have a Plan B available, so the actors can keep the play’s momentum going.

Don’t Have Performers Touch People

The coronavirus isn’t the only reason why performers shouldn’t touch audience members. It also shows your audience that you value their personal space. The audience participation experiences that led me to finding the nearest exit was when an actor literally pulled people onstage—and, worst of all, when another performer sat on an audience member’s lap. Find creative ways to interact with the audience while respecting their personal space.

Don’t Take it Personally

I started writing plays to create the worlds I wanted to see onstage. Part of being a writer is that we love to have control. However, we cannot control how the audience will react on any given night. Nor can we control how the world will look from day to day, and how people will relate to each other in a different landscape. Don’t take it personally.

In closing, I don’t know when social distancing will end, but what I do know is that I look forward to being in a room with people again. I never thought I’d say this, but the next time an actor looks out into the audience and asks me to participate, I won’t panic. I will take a deep breath in and say, “YES!”

About the author

Lauren Wimmer

Lauren Wimmer writes about loneliness, fear, and death in ways that make people say, "hahaha." She is the author of several plays including Divorce Party, which has been produced by Cave Theatre Co. following development at Sewanee Writers' Conference and Theater For The New City. Her play, The Originals, was a semi-finalist for Road Theatre's Summer Playwrights Festival and has been developed at Swarm Artist Residency and Campfire Theatre Festival. The Death of Hayden Waverly, The Most Popular Person In The World was the Region II nominee for KCACTF’s National Partners of the American Theatre Playwriting Award and a semi-finalist for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education's Judith Royer Award for Excellence in Playwriting. The play was performed at Ars Nova’s ANT Fest in 2018. Lauren’s play, untitled STRONG WOMAN play, was presented in a staged reading at Dixon Place and was developed at Workshop Theater. Theatre Evolve presented her play, Bettering An Already Better You, in their New Works Festival. Her collaboration with The Bellwether Project, Dr. Rees Ziti’s Pageant for a Better Future, premiered at Ars Nova’s ANT Fest in June 2019. The Annoyance produced her one-act play, Do As I Say. In addition, Lauren was a finalist for the Ingram New Works Lab at Nashville Repertory Theatre. Her short play, Everything You'll Miss In Minutes, was selected for Theater Masters' National MFA Playwrights Festival and was published by Samuel French. Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company produced her short play, The Citalopram and The Sertralines. She is a former playwriting apprentice at New York Stage and Film's Powerhouse Theatre, Playwrights’ Center Core Apprentice, and Sitka Fellow. She is graduate of The Second City's Conservatory & Writing Programs and participated in The Flea’s Pataphysics Workshop. Lauren earned her B.A. in Theatre from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University where she was the recipient of the Jean & Samuel Elgart ACS Legacy Fellowship and the Mary Marlin Fisher Playwriting Award.