Saturday, July 13, 2013

Theatre For Thought, July 13, 2013

joel fishbane

It’s been a below-average Fringe season for me. Normally by this time of year my eyes are bleary and my pockets are stuffed with the stubs from 20 to 30 shows; this summer, I haven’t managed to see more than ten. (I’m probably slowing down in my old age, but let that pass). Yet even in the small number of shows I’ve seen, a few similarities have quickly become apparent. Whether it’s luck of the draw or something indicative of a larger trend, it seems a pair of habits have become all too popular for Fringe artists: audience participation and pre-show stage business. 

Both techniques disturb me. First, the audience thing. Whenever I’m in the audience, and some happy performer scampers into the crowd, I always adopt a stern, unpleasant expression. I try not to engage. If they speak to me, I give them short, terse answers. Some performers see this as a challenge but most get the message: walk away. My stance on audience participation is clear: audiences have come to see the show, not to be a part of it. 

The true problem was the one that arises whenever you involve audience members in the action: they slow things down. 

Audience participation – and I’m talking specifically about the practice of involving audience members in the plot, eliciting dialogue from them or bringing them onto stage -- has always annoyed me, both as a performer and an audience member. For one, it always feels especially lazy. Unable to solve some problem inherent to the story, an actor / writer will simply break the fourth wall; unable to come up with a satisfying comedic sketch, performers will simply drag an audience member onto stage. Invariably it destroys the tension / comedy in the script because it reminds us the conflict / situation isn’t real. 

I spent a year in children’s theatre where the script required me to bring children onto stage; our mission was to save the world using science (don’t ask) and the children were our assistants. Never mind the old rule about never sharing the stage with children; never mind the questions about breaking the fourth wall. The true problem was the one that arises whenever you involve audience members in the action: they slow things down. 

Nothing kills the pace of a show faster than an audience member (especially a 10 year old) who is suddenly thrust into a spotlight. They adopt a foolish grin and attempt to play along; they make lame jokes; they try to prove they were a worthy choice. Actors spend weeks rehearsing a show and it’s invariably frustrating to have the fruits of that labour thwarted by a tween from New Jersey who probably didn’t want to be there to begin with.

Before any surgery, doctors are always allowed to prepare. Don’t actors deserve the same thing?

Pre-show stage business – having an actor on stage “in character” while the audience arrives – is a much more serious problem. Audience participation is a nuisance but pre-show stage business has the potential to become a serious ethical crime. Consider a play from the writer’s perspective. The writer has chosen to begin the play at a certain point; she has carefully selected the moment when the audience should be introduced to the characters and the world of the play. To introduce us to the characters at an earlier point in the plot is to assert your own vision: you are, in essence, re-writing the play.

The habit is equally unfair to the actor, who must sit on stage and watch the audience arrive. Is there anything more nerve-wracking? Before any surgery, doctors are always allowed to prepare. Don’t actors deserve the same thing? Would we not get a better performance if you allow the actor a few moments before curtain to mentally prepare for the task ahead? 

Finally, pre-show stage business is awkward for the audience. It leaves us uncertain as to what to do upon taking our seats. How much are we supposed to pay attention to what is happening on stage? Should I be talking to my companion or should I be respectfully watching, as I would do in any other performance circumstance? 

At the very least, I will issue a plea: if you’re going to have pre-show stage business, don’t give out programs. Programs are meant to be read and actors are meant to be watched. Which do you want me to do? I can’t do both at the same time; I’m simply not that talented.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. I've seen 15 shows this year and none of them had pre-show business.
    Very few are giving out printed programmes.

    Yes there's been audience participation, but I haven't found it too bad during shows.

    The biggest thing that disturbs me is the disappearance of busking. It's all shoving flyers in people's hands now. No more singing or doing a quick skit.


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