Audience participation. A few thoughts and memories.

Like most working class northern kids my experience of theatre began with pantomime. It was at York Theatre Royal, long before the blessed reign of Berwick Kaler, and I got up there on stage in the middle of a row of other kids, told ‘em my name and age, and did a lot of shouting. I have loved audience participation ever since. To give you some kind of idea what I mean, when I went to see The Venetian Twins in the Swan a member of the audience was given an umbrella to hold during an altercation. I went across after the show, noted the seat number, and booked the same seat for myself a couple of months later. I have always wondered if the actor concerned (I think it was David Troughton) was taken aback to see someone holding out their hands with a massive grin instead of being surprised when it was time to hold the brolly. In my defence it was extremely funny that show and I wouldn’t have gone back just to hold a prop.

I also vividly remember Anthony showing me personally the blood on Caesar’s toga during a promenade production of Julius Caesar in The Other Place. I had shaken Caesars hand on his first entrance so there was an added sense of personal loss.

The high point of my career as a participating member of the audience was when I went down to the NT to see The Mysteries. I waved the blue cloth when Jesus was baptised, sang, danced, sat at the foot of the cross, and best of all had both of my hands grabbed by Mary (the wonderful Sue Johnston) who gave her speech about Jesus ascending up to heaven, a mixture of pain, loss and pride, directly to me with full eye contact. Bliss. Short of actually being given a few lines to speak I doubt I’ll ever better that.

Sadly the opportunities for a member of the audience to be a real practical part of a piece of theatre are usually quite limited. Within your imagination however there are no limits and that shared focus with the other people around you gives great theatre an intensity for me which I don’t find anywhere else. You are breathing the same air as the actors and inhabiting the same space. This can produce a kind of communal joy which turns up in all kinds of unexpected and unforeseen ways. Back in 1982 I saw a stage production of It Aint Half Hot Mum at the Futurist in Scarborough. It was a typical show of its kind, fodder for the visitors who were still just about filling the resorts along the coast here at that time. When the show was due to start Gunner Graham (John Clegg) eased his way diffidently through the curtains and made his way to an upright piano at the side of the stage. He plonked out the opening chords of the theme song (which everyone in the theatre knew by heart) the curtains swished back and the cast swung into the same opening routine which we saw on our television screens each week. It was magical. The rush of welcome which the audience sent out towards those actors would have knocked them down flat if they hadn’t had their arms linked for the opening number. The last time I was a part of a feeling like that was when Alan Bennett walked on stage at the Hay Festival this year. Some of the audience cheered just because he was standing there in front of them. He lives! He is among us!

Of course that communal joy can be rather elusive. I was once given a seat up at the top of the main house at Stratford in the middle of a group of exhausted Americans who were on a whistle-stop tour. I don’t remember which play now, and I’m sure that they don’t either because they used the chance to have a sleep as soon as the lights went down. One of them even complained to his friend at the interval that the emergency light for the St John’s ambulance lady had kept him awake. I’m not joking. I wish I was.

Audiences can also sometimes feel downright unpleasant. Watching The Lieutenant of Inishmaan in the West End I had a strong sense that the people around me had a mindset and an attitude to violence which I didn’t share and the play was feeding it. They were laughing too loudly in the wrong places. I was glad to be out of that one.

I also dislike the audiences where people laugh smugly in all the right places, just to show those around them that they know where they are. You can always tell the ones who are doing that, they are usually just a bit too late to laugh and they laugh for just slightly too long. After a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in Norwich, when I went round to get my programme signed, Martin Jarvis had been as delighted as I was to hear the audience reaction and realise that there were people in the audience who didn’t know that Ernest is in fact the characters real name until it was revealed- they had told each other out loud and really relished the joke. I have always been very grateful myself that I didn’t know about Konstantin’s suicide at the end of The Seagull when I saw it for the first time. It’s a mighty shock if you don’t.

I do sometimes wonder whether other audience members have actually been watching the same play as me and that can be annoying. After The History Boys at the Lowry some girl was showing off to her friends and attempting to be clever by announcing that she “didn’t like realistic theatre”. I hope that one day she sees the error of her ways. If I had done what I would have liked to do and pinned her to the wall while I pointed them out she would have learned sooner. I had more time for the young audience who wolf-whistled the bed in Romeo and Juliet. At least they were being open and honest and they did shut up.

Sometimes you can share a very personal moment with a single member of an audience. When I saw the famous production of An Inspector Calls (with the original cast- Go Kenneth Cranham) I was sitting next to an elderly man, old enough to have seen the original production. We were both on our own. At the end, after the house had collapsed into the wasteland around it, he turned to me with great satisfaction. “Priestley would have liked that.” He would too. It was all the review it needed.

If you go up to Edinburgh on your own, as I have, you can do a lot of that kind of thing, and sometimes with an entire audience. At the interval of the first performance of Robert Le Pages hugely hyped production of The Seven Streams of the River Ota in 1994 the whole lot of us turned to each other in confusion, after a few beats of puzzled silence, and asked each other, “Was that really as bad as I just thought it was?” Without exception we were reassured that it was.

Back in 1998 I got a ticket for the production of Oh What a Lovely War which the NT toured in a big top. When it reached Dewsbury Rugby ground, where I saw a matinée, somebody, probably from one of the local care homes had had the bright idea of bringing along some of the residents, possibly as a kind of therapy. Perhaps on the basis that there were old songs advertised that they might enjoy singing along to and the front area was café table type seating with plenty of room for wheelchairs. Well, they didn’t mind the songs, as their carers had hoped, and they did sing along, in a way that wasn’t always welcome, but in between songs it was a bit of a challenge and some of them had a wander round wanting to know if it had finished yet. I doubt the cast had seen that one coming when they joined the NT.

I saw the NT production of The Misanthrope at Norwich theatre royal in 1989 with Edward Petherbridge playing Alceste, and along with the rest of the audience I was surprised to hear the national anthem, for the first time in years, before the curtain went up. Naturally we all stood up hesitantly knowing that was what we were meant to do, and when the curtain swung back before it finished we were embarrassed to find ourselves faced by a bunch of firmly seated French aristocrats looking down their noses scornfully at such foolish behaviour. Very clever.

The best decision I ever made up at Edinburgh was when I ditched a boring official festival production (Lanark I think it was called) and toddled down to Drummond high school to see Theatro Biuru Podrozy’s Carmen Funebre. We gathered in the dark on a warm night in front of some enormous gates in the middle of the playground and were given a lesson in the horror and futility of war that I will never forget, with fire, smoke, giant soldiers with bull-whips forcing their way through us onto the central area and tiny lighted paper houses being floated up into a dark sky.

Some people were angry about health and safety when the Grassmarket production, Mad sent chair legs (smashed by the cast who had personal experience of mental distress) flying up into the audience. The rest of us were left shaking at the end, unable to leave our seats and had to be talked out of the distress which we had taken on from the cast.

That’s what makes theatre unlike anything else, that shared contract between performer and audience that only exists in the present moment. You have to be there, bum on seat and brain engaged, and that alone makes it worth turning up, in the face of previous disappointments, hoping that it will be as special as you know it can be.


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