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The Invasion of the Soul Snatchers: Interactive Theatre or Collective Embarrassment?

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Thresholds for embarrassment are mighty high. Indeed, our culture is awash in gawking and self-display. Very few squirm.

Check out "reality programming," specifically, this summer's TV mega-hit, "Survivor," not to mention the myriad confessional talk shows out there.

The pundits have been enjoying a field day analyzing the "entertainment" phenomenon and its power to draw a large happy audience eager for more.

And why shouldn't the trend-dissectors frolic? Clearly, a line has been crossed. Concepts of privacy have little application. What was once personal is now public (everyone is busy "sharing") and, equally relevant, the demarcations between performance and reality, life and theatre are blurred.

Off-Broadway Ogling

TV is not the only medium afflicted or liberated—depending on viewpoint—by the esthetic. Consider three new Off-Broadway shows whose dramatic stamp (if that's the right term) is personal intrusion taken to a whole new level. The plays at issue are "Company," (The Rude Room, 380 Broadway) "Game Show," (45 Bleecker), and "LifeGame" (Jane Street Theatre).

At "LifeGame," a production whose conceit is not unlike a party game, an actor interviews an audience member who sits alongside him on stage. And, on the basis of the guest's answers—some of the questions are quite personal—a group of performers, who are also seated on stage, improvise scenes from his or her (the guest's) life.

Like any form of improvisational theatre, some of the skits are mildly amusing, most fall flat. But then, that element of risk-taking—acting without a net (e.g. a script)—is precisely part of a sensibility that thrives on the possibility that public failure will occur.

The audience volunteer, of course, is the centerpiece. Beyond the unspoken notion that "Every life has a story that is stage-worthy"—in this universe, that idea is axiomatic—something more troubling is at play. The "guest" is there to reveal aspects of himself (the more personal or quirkier the better) that serve as grist for the acting mill.

The guest's mission is twofold: to use himself as the basis for an entertaining "script," and then become the audience to his own life. Part of the evening's oddball dynamic is watching the guest watching what's unfolding. On the night we attend, one scene dramatizes the guest's mom coldly rejecting him for being gay. The guest looks slightly troubled, and on some level, that's what the audience comes for, a real person having a real response; although if he sheds a few tears it would be even better.

The unchallenged assumption is that personal disclosure is therapeutic, for the listener as well as the speaker, and with the right finishing touches ("clever" improvisation), it's damn good theatre! "Oprah" meets SNL filtered through a psychodrama lens. "LifeGame" is an Improbable Theatre production. Improbable (appropriately named) is a British-based long-running improvisational troupe.

The boisterous "Game Show" also relies heavily on improvisational skills—the audience's as well as the actors'; although this interactive ditty operates on several levels. For starters, a literal game show is taking place. Indeed, audience members are the contestants who compete for prizes. The theatre has been morphed into a TV studio, complete with TV monitors, applause signs, a warm-up comic, and a slick game show host (played by the very capable Michael McGrath) who pitches questions to the contestants. He also patters, ad-libs, and plays off everyone.

During the "commercial breaks," "Game Show" extends the metaphor, presenting our host and his director, producer, tech-people (all played by actors) in a series of (fully scripted) self-serving, conniving, back-stabbing games with each other. Everyone is desperate to move up the career ladder. These sections are intended to offer the audience a comic behind-the-scenes peek into the underbelly of broadcast news.

Finally, the real and pretend worlds are brought together in the ultimate game. Without giving away too much—there is an element of surprise—the night we are there, our host (McGrath) brings a member of the audience "backstage" during "the commercial break." Having flirted with her earlier in the evening, he now attemps to seduce her in his "dressing room."

The audience member is abruptly a participant in the "fictional" world and has the potential to change the play's outcome. Remember, much of the evening is based on improvisation. Check this out. The woman from the audience is alone in the "dressing room" when the phone rings. Naturally, she picks it up, giggling foolishly. The audience howls. Regardless, her real—or pretend—embarrassment is simply unendurable. To this viewer, the whole bit is excruciatingly awkward and, in the end, manipulative.

But then much of the evening provokes queasiness, like watching theatregoers jumping up and down and waving in front of cameras, as if they really were in a television studio. And then, there's the genuine pain that some of the contestants feel when they miss a question. Equally uncomfortable-making are their frequently unfunny comments that demean themselves and trip up the actors, who have to adlib entertainingly and in character.

Whether these improvised interchanges work or not, there's the sense that something creepy may occur at any moment. What makes it even worse is its total pointlessness. There are no big bucks at stake here. The grand prizes are on the order of digital cameras. The desire to be a celebrity is so strong (oh, for that 15 minutes of fame) that members of the audiences are willing to humiliate themselves in a theatre seating several hundred, in order to pretend they are humiliating themselves in front of a television audience of millions.

So, what's missing in this world of interactive theatre? Not much, short of physical contact, and one show out there provides that, too. It is the San Francisco-based Rude Mechanicals production of "Company," a little known work by Samuel Beckett.

Subtitled "An Interactive Beckett Bedtime Story," "Company" is a man's inner monologue, voicing personal reflections, memories, and images throughout his life. These surface in that netherworld somewhere between wakefulness and sleep or, perhaps, moments before death.

To make the experience real for the audience—indeed, to cast each theatregoer in the role of central character—all the participants in the house become onstage players. Oddly enough, although "Company" engages the audience physically (actors poke and prod theatregoers), it is the least intrusive of the plays discussed, probably because there is something impersonal and anonymous in all the intimacy. Everyone in the audience wears blindfolds—that's right, blindfolds—and no one is in a position to stare at and assess anyone else.

Actors escort each blindfolded theatregoer into the performing space, where he (the audience member) is gently lowered to the floor and placed on his back. Within short order, his head his propped up by a pillow and he is covered with a blanket. (A stuffed animal might be nice!)

During the 70-minute event, audience members are massaged, stroked, clutched (handholding is big), and re-arranged into various postures on and off the floor. Upright, they are led around the room like confused blind men. Prostrate, a theatregoer may be molded into a fetus shape, or stretched out, hands across chest, suggesting a corpse in his coffin.

Throughout, layers of soft voices recite the text—usually whispered directly into the participant's ear—while a chorus of utterances echoes the words in the background. The text is bleak and frightening. The evening evokes an unlikely galaxy where tormented nocturnal souls romp about with New Age convergence theorists.

At the end, after the play's central character has completed his journey and has come to some kind of inner resolution, theatregoers, now sitting on top of their blankets, are instructed to remove their blindfolds and meet and greet the actors. Social mingling follows, and everyone is served milk and cookies. Something stronger might be in order, although the goal is to create a warm, child-like environment. Ideally, the scene incites memories in theatregoers that are good, but in fact don't have to be, as long as they're real.

There May Be Trouble Ahead

The quest for that added dose of reality is the driving force behind the aforementioned productions, assert their creators, who lament what they see as a theatre gone static. In varying degrees, they are all attempting to bring to theatre those elements that are immediate, interactive, and unpredictable.

Still, these innovators acknowledge the dangers of "reality" programming and the potential for collective embarrassment. Interestingly, each of the creators and/or performers we interviewed maintains that, while those pesky pitfalls may exist in other shows, theirs is different. To begin with, they contend, nobody is forced into participating.

Even at "Company," theatregoers know from the outset what is expected of them. Upon arriving, they are told to read the instructions in the program before the show begins. And once it does, if anyone is uncomfortable, he is urged to raise his hand like a cop halting traffic (admittedly without voiced comment), to be ushered out of the theatre.

"That's only happened twice," recalls "Company" adapter Lane Savadove. "For two women, certain emotions had been triggered and they had to leave. Each sat in the lobby and cried quietly, and then returned. Nobody has walked out not to return.

"All of our actors have been trained—it's been part of the rehearsal process—to touch theatregoers gently and supportively," Savadove continues. "And the actors are always taking their cues from the audience members. When you watch it, you realize just how much of an ensemble piece it is, with audience members and actors choreographing the work together."

He points out, "Other interactive shows have their roots in pop-cult or MTV, and there is the drive in New York to create 'event theatre' as a way of making your mark. Our motivation is very different. We want to take a deep and subtle text and make it accessible. In fact, our goal is not to create an interactive event at all. On the contrary, we want to slow everyone down in order to listen to both the text as well as the thoughts inside themselves."

Says Jeffrey Finn, co-author of "Game Show": "We want to create a new form of interactive theatre where people can let down their guard, win prizes, and see a play. It's a great package," he chortles. "Look, all of our contestants are volunteers. It's amazing how many people come into the theatre carrying signs, 'Pick me! Pick me!' This is a star-driven culture. Everyone wants to be a star. We give them that chance. We are part of a theatre that is redeveloping itself."

Lee Simpson, a long-time improviser with the Improbable Theatre, sees "LifeGame" in a similar vein. "Yes, we do believe there's a blurring of the line between reality and theatre, but that's also true of any great play. The essence of reality and truth is always there. With us, real life takes on the character of fiction. We show what can happen to an ordinary life—what an awful term—if the storytelling technique is applied to it." He stresses, "We give our guests their dignity. They can veto where a story goes, and we are sensitive to those feelings."

"LifeGame" is the brainchild of Keith Johnstone, Improbable Theatre's founder. It grew out of Johnstone's "irritation with improvisation," says Simpson. "He felt improvisation had lost its impact to stay with an audience once it [the audience] had left the theatre. And the only way improvisation could have the effect of a good play, he decided, was if there were real people up on stage. Further, once a real person was involved, all the performers would treat the material with more respect, and no longer feel obliged to be funny all the time." "LifeGame" has been touring the U.K. for 15 years.

Still, the questions remain: Why would any "real person" lend himself to this experience? Why would anyone want his life dramatized in front of a theatre full of strangers?

"Most of our guests are there for any number of reasons," notes Simpson. "One or two think they're going to be the stars of a roast. Most are there because they see it as a challenge, a way of daring themselves. They want to see what it's like, they're intrigued by the whole idea."

Peter Boruchowitz, a fortysomething massage therapist, is "LifeGame" 's guest the night we attend. He says, "I did it as a lark. I am not an attention-getter, but I found the experience terrific. Who wouldn't want professional actors acting out his life? It was like a big party everyone was throwing for me. Sometimes they hit it right on and occasionally brought up feelings I hadn't had in years. Some of those feelings were sad, but that's okay. There were a few times I censored myself and now I wish I had been more open. No, I never thought about the audience's response to me, or the whole evening. I probably had the best time. And my friends, who came to groove on my life, the second best time!"

Who Goes?

Demographically, the guests and audiences run the gamut.

"We've had people in their 20s and those in their 90s," says Simpson. "Our best guest was a 92-year-old man in Leeds, who had had a very sad life, and yet continued to be full of hope. At the end of the evening, he said being part of the show was one of the most meaningful experiences of his life." Comparing New York "guests" with their British counterparts, Simpson observes that many New Yorkers have been through therapy, know all the jargon, and are a tad facile. "Beneath all the softness, they're hard." So there are added pressures on the performers. Still, everyone seems to be having a grand time, he underscores.

The same is true at "Game Show" whose demographics are especially unexpected. The play is being presented in a downtown venue, but the audience—at least the night we are there—is largely middle-aged, middle-class, and mainstream in appearance. Indeed, they look like the kind of people who could make up the studio audience at a real game show.

Actor Michael McGrath, who plays the smooth host, observes, "Most of the contestants are professionals—teachers and lawyers. One man said he was a cardiac surgeon. Another claimed to write the crossword puzzles for The New York Times. We have no way of knowing if they're telling the truth. They may see 'Game Show' as a place to enact their fantasies."

Among the three shows, "Company" seems to attract the youngest audience, although a handful of 40ish theatregoers are also evident. Thirty-nine-year-old Sam Truitt, who works at one of the business-to-business dot coms, is particularly taken with the experience, describing it as "profound. The actors were our guides to intimacy. They were an angelic presence. My only reservation was that I found the end of the piece a little cold. We're lying on the floor under the blankets and suddenly we're told it's over and we can take off our blindfolds. That was too abrupt."

And Where Will It All End?

One wonders how Truitt and the others might respond to interactive theatre at its next level, the upcoming "Box Opera," featuring David Leslie in a one-, no, two-man show. After all, a member of the audience participates in this, ahem, boxing match. Yes, boxing match. A ring has been set up in a theatre, or a space as it's now dubbed (at 353 Broadway), and the players sport boxing gloves and protective headgear.

Leslie, who defines himself as an "impact addict," challenges an audience member to knock him down for a thousand-dollar prize. Each participant gets 15 uninterrupted shots at him, although Leslie will defend himself. The next bout can be caught Nov. 11, and then again on Dec 9.

This stuff can't be invented. Indeed, if a novelist or playwright came up with it, his work would be dismissed as implausible and contrived.

Talk about tacky (indeed, kinky) self-display—on all sides. You can't top it. Then again, we wouldn't place any bets.

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