Alice Rafter questions whether interactive theatre and audience participation is merely an annoying trend or more profoundly, is it the future for performance?
Slowly working itself more and more into productions and the theatre world, audience participation (or ‘breaking the fourth wall’) used to panic even the most avid theatre-goer. And unfortunately, (though some have embraced it) it still does. Interactive theatre can range in form and content, from full-on conversations with audience members, to getting them up and taking part in the performance, or simply communicating with them using a lot of heavy eye contact: all of which are bringing new ways of performing to the theatre.
However, opinions on the concept are divided. Some love it; others cannot stand it. Lucien Bourjeily claims that “interactivity is the future”, stating that it is no longer enough to just see a play. Peter Marks, on the other hand, sees it as “one of the most annoying trends in modern theatre” and criticises companies for harassing spectators that clearly want to be left alone. The problem with interactive theatre is that there is a fine line between what is acceptable and what is uncomfortable, and that changes for each individual. Different forms of interaction can be more effective than others, producing better reactions from some audience members.
Even from the perspective of theatre students and enthusiasts, there is a mix of reactions. Some completely love it, while others only enjoy it when they don’t have to participate. Once again, it depends on the person, and the production. I personally am adverse to heavy eye contact from a performer during a play, but am very open to walk-through or conversation style performances. I have attended pieces in which I was the only audience member, and have enjoyed the experience, but have found that some bigger productions do not interact with audiences in an effective way.
Is interactive theatre a good thing? On occasion, it can be quite fun, and is also a new way of exploring theatre and its possibilities. Through it, companies are finding new ways to communicate a specific idea or message. However, sometimes these messages are lost on the audience, and we are distracted by the intimidating or uncomfortable nature of the interaction. It is entirely dependent on the nature of the play: I’ve found often that if it states that a production involves the audience, then interaction is generally ‘well done’ and those that attend the piece are those who do enjoy it. The problem is with productions that do not specify what might happen to the audience- they may only involve the audience for a short time, or rely too much on them and ultimately do something that fails to impress.
Interactive theatre isn’t something that should be disregarded; it can be interesting and an enjoyable experience. However, it needs to be ‘done well’, something which once again divides opinion. It is an idea that will always separate audiences, which is why while it can be effective in some production, it shouldn’t be something that completely changes the theatre and the way we make and watch it.