By Charmaine Spencer, Script Consultant for the Puppeteers of America
Originally Published in INSIGHTS, Volume 16, Number 4, Winter 2006
ACTOR IN ELF COSTUME:
Tell me young lady, what do you want from Santa’s workshop?
SEVEN YEAR-OLD AUDIENCE MEMBER:
I’ve got a big black dog and he’s going to eat you up.
True story, and a good argument for keeping those spectators silently and respectfully in their place. Breaking the fourth wall to involve the audience in a performance is a risky business.
Sometimes there’s just no good reason for it. Besides that, if Alice in Wonderland invites a group of kids to climb up on the stage to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, the audience suddenly becomes aware that they aren’t really in the wonderland they were having so much fun believing in.
Still, after thirty-some years as a playwright and puppeteer, I’m convinced that A) given the right venue and the right material presented in the right way, participation can greatly enhance the live theatre experience, especially for young children, and B) audience involvement can be successfully integrated into a performance. Nine out of ten audiences will respond appropriately, if they know what’s expected and that number ten bunch can be handled if performers are flexible and have some tricks in reserve.
Over the years, with the help of Brian Way’s great book, Audience Participation: Theater for Young People, I believe I’ve figured out how to involve audiences without sending a production off it’s track. I set down this list of rules for myself and though I’m a novice in the area of museum theater, I think they apply.
The Way book goes into detail about theater configurations that best serve a production that includes audience involvement. For our purposes I’m going to assume that the playing space allows actors to see, hear and reach out to the entire audience with ease. A gallery space, for example, or a small theater space with accessible aisles. I’m also imagining that actors will be approaching audience members where they sit, or stand. I don’t rule out the idea that a chosen audience member might be asked to step up and help with a particular task but, in my opinion, the anointing of certain individuals, who crawl up onstage and try not to look silly while the actors explain things, rarely works to the advantage of the story being told.
1. Any participation must be a necessary element of the story. Audience members should feel they have an important role in moving the performance along and insuring a happy conclusion. In my version of The Princess and the Pea, the Queen is on the verge of tossing the irregular Princess out of the palace when Hans Andersen asks the audience to yawn. This causes the Queen to start yawning herself. She decides she’s too sleepy to cope and gives in to her son’s entreaties. The Princess stays the night and the story carries on.
2. Make audience members comfortable at the beginning of the show. Let them know that they are invited to participate. Let them know if they will continue to be themselves in the current time and place; or perhaps you’re asking them to be miners in the year 1915 or a battalion of ants in the Aesop story?:
Welcome to the field. Always exciting to welcome a new group of ants. My name is Annalinda. Now, you are here to work and I expect everyone of you to pitch in. Our immediate task is to find food and move it to the storage areas indicated on your maps. Did you all get maps?
(AUDIENCE: No) No? Well never mind, I’ll be your guide.
3. Plan what types of participation will be required and how it will be solicited.
A. Group response. (“On the count of three, everyone yawn.”)
B. Specific questions. (“What color was he wearing?”)
C. A specific question or specific request from a specific audience member.
(“Who’s good at math? You? Then tell me, what’s two times two?”)
D. Open ended questions (“What vegetables should we put in the soup?”)
E. A familiar song or a simple chorus that can be taught quickly.
( “Fa-la-la-la-la, it’s spring”)
4. Think of your audience as another character.
Anticipate possible responses, write them into the script and provide actors with alternative replies. Also allow for adjustments due to performance time and place.
[E. Coli is a fast talking traveling salesman. Alternative words or phrases are in parenthesis.
”(whatever)” indicates that performers should insert whatever’s appropriate]
All right, who had breakfast (lunch) today? Cereal ?(a sandwich?). Toast? (Chips?)
AUDIENCE (Raise hands)
(Approaches one child )You had cereal? (a sandwich?) What kind?
Cheerios? (whatever) my favorite!
5. Check the script for rhetorical questions, like “What’s this in my pocket?” If it’s in the form of a question, somebody in the audience will answer, whether you want them to or not.
6. Decide if the venue or age of the audience will necessitate a prologue
such as: “As the audience you have a job to do. Your first job is to sit quietly and listen so everyone can hear and enjoy the show. Now, there may be some times when the actors will ask for your help. If they ask, go ahead and speak up and they’ll let you know when it’s time to get quiet and listen again.”
Actors might also be given the option, if the group seems extra lively, to set a signal for quiet.
(“Whenever you see anyone wave like this, that’s the time to be quiet again.”) Also, especially if kids are sitting up front and parents are in the back, actors can be given the choice to tell parents that it’s perfectly all right to leave their seats to if their children need help with their behavior.
For Actors and Directors:
1. Include the entire audience whenever possible. Focus on various segments at a time and move focus often so everyone feels included. Allow audience members to call out responses to open ended questions. Acknowledge as many as possible.
2. Never embarrass an audience member. Never force a response. Ask a general question, watch for open faces.
3. Keep the pace of the performance at all times. If participation is reluctant, say something like, “Let’s try that again and put a little more juice into it” but don’t try to force things, be ready to answer for yourselves and move on.
On the other hand, if participation is too lively, steer the audience back by:
- Using a line like: “Thank you, that’s great,” or “I’ve got it, let’s see what happens next.” or
- B) Turning back into the story and continuing. Children eventually realize they’re missing something and get quiet. Be ready to repeat or rephrase important information that may have been mis
4. Use blocking and focus to establish a clear line between “Now we’re talking to the audience and now we need the audience to listen.”
5. Be ready to improvise. “I’ve got a big black dog and he’s going to eat you up” stopped the show, but only for a moment. The actor ad-libbed “Well, I hope not, I’m sure I’d give him indigestion” and moved right on.
Charmaine Spencer is script consultant for the Puppeteers of America. She’d be happy to hear from IMTAL members on the subject. Check out her web site: www.spencerplays.com.