Monday, May 30, 2011

Engaging the Audience

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Joey Rizzolo.

I saw How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying this week. I didn’t buy the tickets, they were given to me. I abhor the Great White Way, but I sometimes like to peek in on enemy lines. I watched the bulk of the show with only one hand free as the other was being used to pinch my nose. And all the other provisos you would expect from an avant-garde artist confessing such a pastime. Here’s my greatest confession: While a great musical this is not, the show itself I kinda liked. I could not help but consider that, had I seen this production at La Mama or The Chocolate Factory or the Astoria Performing Arts Center, I would have been impressed. It’s not going to change the world, but it’s probably as good as a lesser musical is ever going to get.

Here’s what I didn’t like: the audience.

On May 29th, 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring premiered along with the accompanying choreography of the Ballets Russes Vaslav Nijinsky at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées.  Shortly after it began, the performers were met with boos and hisses.  Nijinsky began shouting numbers from the wings when it became clear that the dancers could not hear the orchestra over the din.  The shouting escalated and eventually the unrest in the audience erupted into a fistfight.  Stravinsky himself fumed.  Camille Saint-Saëns is rumored to have storemd out.  Tuxedoed dilettantes of the arts threw punches.  Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev later said, “It was just what I wanted.”

It is difficult to imagine an audience responding this way without guidance.  Early audiences of the original Futurists of early 20th-century Italy reacted with even more ferocity, tearing apart the theater and driving performers into the street where they had to be rescued by the police.  But these events are difficult to reproduce in any way that can be regarded as anything but just that – a reproduction.

Many of the revolutionaries who delighted in such anarchy were unapologetic war-mongers, hungry for progress, and in some regards, they and their kin have succeeded: Progress has wrought things both magnificent and terrible, and surely unimaginable to our forbears.  By the display of such magnificence and terror, they would be simultaneously delighted and repulsed; delighted at the beauty of the speed of air travel, the acceleration of particles beyond light speed, the absolute arsenal of 21st century superpowers…but repulsed that even the acts of extremists no longer give way to conflict as easily as they once did.  Progress has made the world smaller, and the result is that we now live in an age of consensus, paranoid that if every action is met with a Newtonian re-action, we may very well bring about our own destruction.  Or, as King of Comedy Mohandas Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye, and soon the whole world is blind.”  Instead of providing a reason to act of out love, we instead fail to act out of fear, which is completely anathema to the vision of fascists and anarchists. Or artists, anyway.

As artists, we need not be warmongers to appreciate action over inaction.  Indeed, we tow a much more delicate line than that of the past.  A century ago, it followed that action created conflict, which resulted in war.  But progress has handed us a smaller world in which geopolitical borders represent little but the confines of the law therein.  Propaganda is a bygone instrument.  War is no longer the hygiene of the world.  If anything, it has become the refuge of the weak.  It is a difficult thing to lead a revolution in the age of consensus, when it is so much easier now than ever before to appreciate the perspective of your foes.

Greg Kotis’ Urinetown is, in essence, a story of revolution in the age of consensus. Throughout Urinetown, there are direct references to the musicals of Brecht & Weill (which attempted to be revolutionary in their own right), though perhaps it's greatest inspiration was an American musical that was itself the progeny of Brechtian drama: Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock, a play not just about a labor revolution, but one that caused a labor revolution during its first performance when the actors, banned by the union from going on stage, performed in the house.  In many ways, Urinetown indicted its inspirational material for being a product of its time.  Unlike the ending of Cradle, the revolutionaries of Urinetown inadvertently bring about the unraveling of society by dismantling the empire that, malevolent as it may have been, maintained order under dire circumstances.  It is as if Kotis is suggesting that yes, history is written by the winners but in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins because history gets written the same way every time.

Two years after Cradle, Clifford Odets would try to achieve a similar situation by involving the audience in his own drama of labor revolution, Waiting for Lefty.  But the audience involvement there was manufactured, and contemporary productions are rare as the audience participation is seen as a moment that could not be convincingly delivered on a modern stage. I’ve heard tell that during climactic moments of Turn Off the Dark (if, after however many previews, there can even be such a thing), there is an impressive swell of cheering by the audience…prompted by the ushers. To me, this is by far the most deadly indictment of Spider Man, far greater than the caterwauling of U2 or the absence of story or the emperiled actors. The audience of How to Succeed in Business was all too eager to applaud as soon as Harry Potter appeared before them (having done nothing yet to earn any accolades). Clearly, even uptown houses should require no coaxing to clap.

They don’t. It’s routine, a gesture that has collectively come to mean very little. Even when direct prompting is not required, there are unspoken formalities, and both sides shake hands; lights down before intermission, a curtain call, the end of a musical number. Expectations are laid, and everyone plays ball. Even the Futurists had to contend with the fact that, after a few performances that erupted in riots, they had inadvertently given birth to a new expectation, for it wasn’t long before audiences started showing up with bad fruit, expecting it to be redefined as ammunition.  All the work the Futurists did toward undermining the expectations of their audience ultimately went to simply creating a new expectation.  This is the danger of inciting unrest – any cooperation on the part of the audience that is done willfully is not done truthfully.  It is our responsibility, as creators of work on stage, to keep them honest.  If we are doing our jobs in creating theater that cannot be reproduced (which, by the definition of something that is going on NOW, should be a given), then we are not calling upon the audience to provide us with an expected response anyway.

If this seems like a call to make people, angry, it’s not.  Anger is not the only way an audience can respond of their own accord.  They can be prompted to other responses, but in doing so, they are still being prompted.  Reaction is what we can use to help them unlearn their habits of clapping as the only acceptable spontaneous response to a theatrical event, and even then those moments tend to be proscribed.  There’s nothing wrong with clapping, but why only that?  Why not boo? Why not dance, make a speech, be silent, turn their backs on us, induce vomiting, kiss a stranger, read the riot act, the real one?  As performers we use our allotted time to communicate something to them.  Why confine the audience’s otherwise limitless possibilities of communication to the act of one hand striking another?

The audience is a crucial variable that makes any act of theater a one-time event.  Sometimes we involve them to demonstrate this to our audience.  Every so often we empower them so that they realize the extent to which they are participating in something unique. The plea to you, theater-smith, is this: find ways of extracting new responses from your audience. They have always been free to indulge in must now not just have their private responses, but you are in position to create a collective response, a reaction to a change in the way theater reflects the world and, just maybe, a reaction to the way theater changes the world.


  1. Hi Joey - I get completely what you are looking for. I often find myself at the point desperation with the dullness of the audience, which more often than not is also aggravated by the insistence from the stage of maintaining control, perfection and the 4th wall.
    In my group we work methodically with designing performances as self-organizing critical systems, which also prompt and rely on audience reactions. We begin laying down this contract with the audience discreetly from the moment they set foot in the theater.

  2. I saw SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK a few weeks ago. It is not perfect. It is not flawless. I fell in love with it anyway.