The audience steps up

The audience steps up

28 March 2018

Louisa Doyle on the surprising things that can happen when someone gets up out of the dark

Since the eve of the call-and-response, people have been accustomed to the idea that a protagonist in a play is not the only person who can get called into action. Recent shows by Punchdrunk and You Me Bum Bum Train made immersive theatre especially trendy and accessible for mainstream audiences. People talk about their experiences in them as though they survived. Why is it then that we want more risk when we come to the theatre?

My most memorable moment of the festival so far was the alien re-enactment in Lights Over Tesco Carpark when a blindfolded audience member gets sprayed in the face and cooled off with a handheld fan. Totally silly – totally brilliant. With such elven-like innocence, I wonder if I could get angry at Julia Pilkington if she snapped my finger in a mousetrap. But why exactly was this impromptu onstage shower such a refreshing moment for me, even if I didn’t get picked or think about offering myself up?

Maybe I’ve had enough of being stuck in the spectator seat. Until now, I’ve always opted to be onstage, or deciding what goes on it. Maybe watching someone hop out of the audience and into the action reminded me that we can be in the limelight too. A less jealous perspective would be that it brought me closer to other people in the audience when I realised that whoever was up onstage was a feeling, breathing body like me. In the dark stalls, it’s easy to feel the anonymous mass to be something that swallows you up rather than stands with you. Theatre is about community, and Poltergeist Theatre really bring that message home.  

Despite my initial impressions, it’s not an instance in which the audience really steers the show. In a workshop today with Nina Segal on experimental form, she told us about a production in which the audience spent an hour man-handling an actor dressed as a polar-bear. Theatre is a space in which you can feel totally out of control. Lights Over gives the audience an opportunity to play, but not to actually change the outcome of events. A volunteer gets to draw the alien that Callam Coghlan describes. Whatever the sketch (within reason), the show will likely go on as planned. Unless your alien is offensive enough to end the show or so special it has to be wheeled off immediately to Sotheby's. Both scenarios seem about as unlikely as a spectator jumping onstage in a play that doesn’t even ask for volunteers.

Poltergeist Theatre’s opportunities for us to participate give the audience an illusion of having agency. Their pick-and-mix approach to telling the four stories allows the audience to determine the order by choosing whose sherbet-saucer to eat. But each experiment is self-contained, so the narrative is unaffected if you shuffle them up. Does that make the performance any less impressive? No. In the moment, it still feels risky and unpredictable.

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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca