The Smell of the Crowd

Something there is that doesn't love the fourth wall

It's the bane of my existence, a hideous blight to which I've been witness countless times, a painful bore that causes me to shrink in my theater seat each time it waggles its ugly theatrical head. Audience participation gives me gas. It ruins any play, lovely or ugly, and destroys the tuneful memory of all that came before it in every musical in which it appears. It's a crap-laden cop-out committed by lazy, uninspired directors on unsuspecting ticketholders who just want to sit still and watch the show.

But no. We're dragged from our seats, made to bellow and prance under a pink gel, forced to stand as proof of our lack of talent, presumably so that the people up on stage -- the people we've come here to watch perform -- will appear more talented. Or so that -- as with any of the dozen or so "murder mystery dinner theater" programs that have set up shop all over town -- the actors don't have to work so hard. (A performance I attended this week of Koko! The Island Adventures of Miss Koko Neufchatel actually began with an audience-participation bit that sent the message, "Run screaming!" I stayed, much to my deep regret.)

From under what moldy leaf, I have lately been wondering, did audience participation crawl? I wanted a name, someone I could blame for the shameful nonsense that brings every show, fair and foul, to a screeching halt. My research revealed a sickness deeper even than the one I felt watching middle-aged frumps, plucked from the audience, performing "YMCA" during a recent production of Menopause: The Musical. Audience participation, it turns out, is not a new problem. It's been ruining people's fun for centuries.

Maqamats, or melodies with improvisations, were the first audience participation used by -- who else? -- the Jews during Temple services in about A.D. 50, thus setting a show-biz precedent: Jews as cultural arbiters. Cantillation, a recitative chanting of Biblical prose, became all the rage after the destruction of Jerusalem under Roman rule in A.D. 70, although it's unlikely that Rabbi Finkelstein could have known that leading his congregation in a chorus of "Barukh atah Adonai, elohaynu, melekh ha-olam . . ." would lead to the deep horror of Tony and Tina's Wedding nearly 2,000 years later.

In the meantime, ancient-world audience participation found its way to Rome's elliptical-shaped Colosseum, where a random shout of "feed him to the lions!" in response to an especially flatulent performance by an effeminate gladiator was taken literally by Emperor Titus, who shortly thereafter launched several successful seasons of animal-versus-man combat. These barbaric and needlessly cruel "entertainments" involved tossing audience members into the ring with grouchy and underfed lions or wild boar and, as horrible as it must have been to watch some poor slob being gored and eaten by wildlife, it can't have been worse than much of what passes for performance at any of our local dinner theaters today.

Audience participation fell out of favor for the next several centuries, and we have the queen -- or perhaps several dozen queens, as it were -- to blame for its comeback. Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show opened in the Royal Court's experimental Theatre Upstairs as a six-week workshop in 1973, and played for decades at various venues all over the world. Returning audience members began shouting out bons mots during Rocky performances, and live theater, formerly a polite entertainment at which audiences were seen but not heard, has since become a free-for-all starring, at least for 10 or 12 excruciating minutes, you or the poor slob in front of you (who was probably dragged to the theater by his wife in the first place).

Today, nearly every hack musical writer looks to his audience to plug up part of Act One with a cameo from some cute kid or sweet granny sitting out front. Our best defense against this scourge is to look for clues that a show is about to go looking for a boost from its audience, and to flee as soon as one turns up. Any song listed in the program as being performed by a cast member "and friend" indicates either audience participation or a ventriloquist bit, neither of which should be tolerated. Any time an actor pulls out a Polaroid camera, you know someone's about to be hauled up on stage for a fake photo op with the cast, in return for participation in a dance number or, worse yet, a sing-along. The words "interactive" or "murder mystery dinner," when used with the word "theater," only ever means "Stay away unless you want to eat banquet food with half-wits who are pretending someone just died or was married." And any time a performer calls for the house lights to be turned up is a fine time to head for the restroom, which lately seems to be the only place in any theater where no one will ask you to perform some inanity in front of a crowd.

 
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