Joseph Winer deliberates on safe spaces for audiences and whether performers are pushing participation too far.
In the Globe’s 2016 production of The Taming of the Shrew, there’s a moment when Biondello (performed by the brilliant Molly Logan) sits on the edge of the stage and wraps her legs around the head of a random man standing in the yard. Without his consent, he has involuntarily participated in the show and, in the process, non-consensually partaken in a rather intimate act with one of the performers. In the same season, Lucy Owen’s Puck eats a banana, shares it with a man in the audience and then passionately kisses him. I remember one of my friends asking, “What if their girlfriends were with them?” Surely though, there’s a much more serious issue at hand in the way that theatre-makers force participation on their audiences.
As the audience, what are we offering to the performers when we enter their playing space? Is there some sort of invisible contract that says we’ll behave in a certain way, respond in a certain manner and participate as necessary in service to the performers?
Katy Dye’s ruthless performance of Baby Face at Edinburgh’s Summerhall this year was outrageously unforgiving. She screamed and wailed like a baby that’s been left for dead, swinging a highchair around at speed like an angry child, and then – just at the moment when we realised that the only thing between her and us was the invisible fourth wall and the steps that lead down to the performance area – she pointed out a young man in the audience and asked him to come and join her. I was genuinely quite terrified for him at this moment. I legitimately thought he was going to be hurt. Dye was breaking the boundaries of theatre. The boundaries of performance art are often far more dangerous.
Never have I felt so uncomfortable for someone participating in a show before. And WHERE IS THE CONSENT? This individual is arguably, given a choice. He doesn’t have to get up. But that would completely protest the conventions of performance: where the performers are in control of the space and we do what they say. There’s a major social anxiety that comes with performing in front of an audience in any context, but I think more so when it’s involuntary participation: when you don’t know what’s coming, and you’re confronted with the fear/anxieties of getting it wrong or looking foolish in front of an audience by saying or doing something stupid. But then there’s a Catch 22. Because if you refuse to get up, refuse to participate, you’re doing that very thing: you’re embarrassing yourself, you’re getting it wrong, you’re ‘ruining’ the performance.
In another moment of the show, Dye dressed in school uniform and asked a man in the audience if he found her attractive. He was speechless. He didn’t know what to say, because nothing that he could say would make the situation OK; even saying nothing wouldn’t fix it but doing so seemed easier than getting it wrong.
Baby Face is just one example of this troubling grey area of participation and consent. We try to look away, but we can’t: by looking away, by not answering the question, by refusing to get up, we’re still participating. Should we expect that as an audience of any show? As an audience of a show which categorises itself as performance art?
And Baby Face certainly isn’t alone in using audience participation at my Fringe visit this year. The frankly brilliant Lights Over Tesco Car Park invited participants to the stage to take part in various segments: in one, someone is blindfolded whilst the performer used a variety of objects to create a foley soundscape which accompanied the telling of a story. As a part of this, the performer – completely unbeknownst to the blindfolded participant – held a needle to a balloon and teased the audience with the threat of popping the balloon. But do we feel the same towards this moment as we do in participatory moments of Baby Face? …probably not. No. No we definitely do not. Because the whole thing is done in jest. The show is built on comedy. We feel safe and welcomed from the moment we enter the space, so we know that, realistically, the participant is safe too.
A similar thing happened in Norris and Parker’s comedy sketch show Burn the Witch: a participant was brought up onto the stage and asked to join in with a finale dance. But, in the performance I was at anyway, the participant loved it. We were totally laughing with them, and they took complete pleasure in entertaining us. In Burnt Lemon’s The Half Moon Shania, one of the performers straddled a man in the front row and touched the face of another: but, again, most of us didn’t feel uncomfortable at this. It’s sort of just accepted as a part of the show. Personally, I wouldn’t want it to happen to me: I’d feel viscerally uncomfortable. But I never seem to get picked on for these things. Maybe I have a look which suggests I don’t want to be involved? I was once made to twerk in front of the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s pantomime audience, and it was horrible. I actually refused to go up for the segment (sort of knowing what was going to happen), but the performer basically dragged me on and I felt guilty saying no.
So where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable participation? If the desired effect is one of comedy, is that when it’s acceptable? Is that why Baby Face is breaking boundaries? Because even the Globe’s ‘participation’ was essentially for comedy. And the audience did laugh. And the participants were laughing along too.
When talking about the Globe, someone said to me that participation is almost a part of being a groundling in the yard. That by standing in that space, you’re offering your permission to be used as part of the show: to be moved out the way by a rushing actor, to get splashed or spat on, or, apparently, to have your head wrapped between someone else’s legs. But SURELY this cannot be the case? Surely by buying a ticket to a performance event, we’re not giving our consent to be made to feel physically uncomfortable.
If something wouldn’t be OK outside of the parameters of performance, then what makes it OK just because it happens in a designated performance space? We talk of theatres as safe spaces, so do we need to spend a little more time caring for our audiences and thinking really carefully about how we’re asking them to consent to their participation?