How to Break the Fourth Wall, Not Your Audience’s Trust

Article Image
Photo Source: Pictured: The cast of Sh*tfaced Shakespeare performing at the Leicester Square Theatre

Audience participation. It’s like Marmite: some people can’t get enough of it while others may freeze in horror when they realise an actor is about to gyrate on their lap. So what can you do to prepare to break the fourth wall when your director has just clapped their hands and said: “Wouldn’t it be great if…”

And then suddenly you’re on stage, the place you’ve spent years trying to get onto, only to be heading back towards the audience, swallowing your nerves.

When audiences sign up for an immersive theatre experience, it’s easier on both them and the actors to get involved. The audience are ready to throw themselves into the experience and suspend their disbelief. However, if they’ve gone to see Shakespeare – and Hamlet suddenly gets off the stage and starts chatting to a guy in the stalls, people might start to wonder what’s going on.

Don’t scare them off.
A key thing actors are taught when they’re starting a show that involves interaction with the audience is to enclose them, not to expose them. Nobody wants to terrify the audience (unless you’re running an immersive haunted house).

It’s important to consider whether the play you’re in actually needs to interact with an audience member. As an actor, this won’t normally be your call, but it’s worth avoiding plays where the script is slow and the director thinks about throwing in some audience participation to spice things up a bit.

Done well, audience participation can add something thrilling to a show. Done badly, it’s awkward, clunky and looks out of place. Dene Horgan is an actor based in London. She tells Backstage: “I enjoy mixing up the traditional role of the audience being passive and bringing them into a more present, active state where they’re quite literally more involved with the show. With certain audience members, there’s a delight they experience that they’ve been ‘chosen,’ which you know will go on to become a story they tell others after the show, keeping the performance alive beyond the end of its run. The tension and anticipation that enter the atmosphere of the piece are also really enjoyable!” Horgan says she used to hate it at first, but started to find sitting in an area she felt uncomfortable in exciting.

Actor Urszula Makowska loves audience participation but tells Backstage: “Sometimes it is nerve-wracking because you are basically improvising and you are live. You are a public speaker and you need to have a connection with your audience. There are no edits…. Also, as an actor, it is your job to stay in character and to have the audience participate and be involved, but it isn’t always easy to do so. You really have to prepare for everything in advance.”

Understand consent.
The issue of consent is one that’s come up a lot recently. Some reviews of Magic Mike Live pointed out that although people had bought tickets to the show, they didn’t necessarily ask to have a performer grind on them (they might have been there supporting friends on hen dos, and not feel comfortable being touched).

Actors need to learn to recognise signs of consent. A feature by Joseph Diner for A Younger Theatre calls out an actor in the Globe’s 2016 show The Taming of the Shrew, who kisses an audience member and makes him share her banana. He points out the uncomfortable situation actors can put an audience in: making an audience member feel as if they are damned if they participate and damned if they don’t. 

Read: Should the Theater Be a Safe Space?

Planning ahead is crucial, as is remembering you’re in control at all times. You don’t have to pick on the nervous-looking audience member. In the same way that you like to have a safe space, they might too. It’s nice to include an audience gently, perhaps with a question to elicit a show of hands. This is common at comedy gigs, and it warms the audience (and the performer up) to expect more later. 

Saul Marron is part of Sh*t Faced Shakespeare, a hugely popular show where one actor out of six takes it in turns to get drunk and appear on stage. Marron tells Backstage: “When it’s your turn to be the compere of a Sh*tfaced show, your whole job is to break that fourth wall and bridge the gap between the actors and the audience. We’re incredibly lucky that most of our audiences love that informality – so 90% of the time, interacting with them is a huge amount of fun.”

But how can actors ensure they’re choosing people in the audience who want to play ball? After all, nobody wants to accidentally pick on somebody who clearly hates theatre and only came along for their partner. “You want to pick someone who’s willing to be involved whilst staying clear of those that are too keen and over-excited to be part of it, they often try to take over,” Marron says. “There’s a knack to it that you soon get the hang of.”

Dene Horgan has a rule of three when she’s doing a show: “If they say no three times then I move on to someone else – there’s always someone willing it to be them. If once on stage/in the experience and they don’t like it, I change my tactics to be encouraging and try to settle their discomfort and stay on the cautious side for the rest of the participation. It’s all about respecting the boundaries the person sets and you can usually pick them up very quickly.”

Prepare, prepare, prepare.
If you’re feeling nervous about breaking the fourth wall, there are plenty of things actors can do. Makowska says: “Sign up for improvisation classes and public speaking. These two classes go hand-in-hand. You have to be ready to know who you are, who your audience is, what you are going to say and how you are going to involve your audience. You will have to learn to allow them to respond to you and for you to respond to them.”

Read: 14 Films That Famously Break the Fourth Wall

If public speaking classes feel a bit organised for your style of theatre, Marron’s suggestion is to “just have fun” – something he’ll be doing at their next run at the Leicester Square Theatre, when the company perform Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew drunk. He says the audience will normally be far more scared of you than you are of them: “When you’re playing with the audience you soon realise that they really don’t want to seem foolish or unhelpful so they’re willing and eager to go along with whatever you ask of them. You’re in control, so be nice (ish).”

But what happens if audience participation goes too far and you start getting heckled? Marron says the audience doesn’t stand a chance if that happens. “Hecklers rarely stand a chance in a Sh*tfaced show. Unless you’re confident enough to try and be funnier than our cast or compere, then expect a quick-witted rhyming couplet to be thrown back at you and the entire audience to turn on you very quickly. It’s always funny to watch though.”

Check out Backstage’s UK audition listings!