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!”