Audience interaction: innovative or infuriating?
Last night I saw 6.0: How Heap and Pebble Took on the World and Won at Battersea Arts Centre. It’s a curious piece about two ice-skating champions trying to survive in a world without ice. Amid the weird and wonderful wood-skating dances there are several moments in which this two-handed show incorporates some audience interaction. This interaction is neither integral to the success of the piece nor a particularly negative inclusion. Why, then, is it there at all?
Audience participation is a controversial subject. Whether you like it or loathe it, theatre today is increasingly full of perky participation exercises. It’s easy enough to deal with if you’re of a naturally ouvert disposition, or surrounded by enough friends to affirm you’re not a weirdo, but if you’re ever there alone then it’s hard not to feel like an ungainly twerp. Keith Paterson dislikes participation so intensely that he even branded himself ‘particapaphobic’ in a recent blog.
I’m by no means ‘particapaphobic’ (or ‘participaphobic’, which is what I would have termed the condition), merely participacurious. The interaction involved in Heap and Pebble required the audience to throw flowers onto the stage, to clap periodically, and also allowed a certain lucky spectator to give Heap a back massage. The participatory element was not to its detriment – in fact it aided the show’s slightly sombre inanity – yet did on occasion seem as though it was included to cure a dull moment.
There’s really nothing better than a bit of well-integrated audience participation. Belt Up’s The Trial, which I saw at Southwark Playhouse last year, was invasive, all-engrossing and fantastically terrifying. Audience involvement was integral to the atmosphere of the piece and vital to creating a feeling of powerlessness.
On the other hand, there’s really nothing worse than a badly integrated bit of audience participation. I saw Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before as part of the LIFT Festival a few months ago. A production by a company I had heard a lot about but never seen, I was full of anticipation about this show. As the performers directed the audience to retrieve the gaming consoles from under their seats, my heart began to beat just a little bit faster; I was feeling the pressure of my impending and unrehearsed involvement. Unfortunately on this occasion my excitement was unwarranted; Best Before consisted only of audience input, and hour upon hour of it (or so it seemed). Watching the results of what was effectively a computer game played en masse was an example of the most mind-numbing and unnecessary audience interaction ever devised and, quite frankly, an excuse for a piece of theatre.
Although Heap and Pebble was inoffensive in its inclusion of audience participation, I did spend much of the performance with a big question mark over my head wondering why it was there at all. There can never be rules in theatre but, for what it’s worth, audience interaction works best when it’s there for a reason.
Originally a town hall, there’s a definite sense of posterity and well-worn grandeur when you walk into BAC. The bar/cafe is large but cosy and well-priced, and the atmosphere inviting. This venue wholeheartedly inhabits an ethos of shabby chique. Heap and Pebble was performed in a small, fairly standard studio space, with about 50 seats in tiered rows.