The Edinburgh Festival 2011 shows creating new kinds of audience interaction
Are you sitting comfortably? Not for long
This article is from 2011.
Oh Fringe audience, you poor, beleaguered souls. Herded in and out of cramped venues, besieged by flyer-happy teenagers and bankrupted by increasingly stretched ticket prices, now you also have to provide the entertainment.
Terrible, isn’t it? This year, the star of a number of the highest-profile productions on the Fringe is … you guessed it.
Leading the charge at your modesty are Ontroerend Goed, those terrible infants the Fringe loves to tut at. In their Edinburgh debut, The Smile Off Your Face, you were blindfolded and disorientated. When they returned with Internal in 2009, they romanced you one-on-one, then betrayed your intimate secrets to strangers. This time around, they’ve even called the show Audience, and stated very clearly in the pre-publicity that they intend to record the audience’s every move and test the limits of their group mentality. Shocking. I know. Why can’t they just leave you to enjoy their plays in peace, and be satisfied by the odd enthusiastic rustle of a sweetie-bag and some polite applause before you run for the parking meter?
The thing is, the stalls have never been a safe hiding-place. From music halls and the raucous pits at The Globe, the call-and-response of pantomime and the uncompromising invasions of personal space involved in performance art to the choreographed heckling of The Rocky Horror Show, the public’s vocal, visible engagement with the show has long been an essential part of the live experience. Stand-up comedians live or die by it. Are the theatre-makers creating a storm this Fringe really doing anything so revolutionary by asking their audience to get involved?
‘Lots of people have asked me that,’ says David Leddy, whose works, from Sub Rosa to Home Hindrance, have never precisely allowed for sitting comfortably. ‘I really do disagree with the idea that traditional theatre audiences are passive. We’re always interpreting, in any kind of piece. Even just deciding whether or not we’re going to stay, whether we like it; being in the audience has always involved a very active mental process.’
Leddy’s latest work, Untitled Love Story, has been specifically designed to chime with that sort of imaginative engagement. It features four passages where the audience is plunged into darkness and asked to meditate as the narrative unfolds aurally.
‘I’ve wanted for a long time to make a piece where the audience actually meditate during the show,’ he explains. ‘It’s a very powerful thing, to meditate, but normally we’re asked to imagine waves lapping at shores, bunny rabbits jumping. I wondered what would happen if you asked people to meditate on things that are darker and more complex.
‘A piece itself never has meaning on its own: it’s given meaning when somebody watches it and interprets it, so the meditation is a very explicit way of looking at that because you’re asking people to allow events from their own lives to echo against events from the narrative, so that they become part of the piece.’
‘I don’t see [what we do] as asking much more of an audience,’ says Audience director Alexander Devrient. ‘Theatre is a medium that has many different ways of interacting with its audience. And because of that, theatre has the possibility to communicate ideas or stories that other mediums can’t. The audience don’t have to believe anything: I just make sure they don’t have to shut themselves out. I love the fact that they can keep on living while they’re in a play.’
Audience itself was created as the Arab Spring was taking hold, and Devrient’s focus on the group mentality here is something far more than just an attempt to make complacent audiences uncomfortable.
‘I tend to distrust groups and masses, but at the same time it’s almost impossible to achieve something world-changing alone,’ he says. ‘The power of the Arab Spring is still challenging everyone’s views, and I wanted to question that viewpoint for myself, together with the audience of each night.’
‘I don’t think this focus on the audience is a recent thing: it’s been going on in various forms for at least 70 years,’ says Leddy. ‘Perhaps it has just become more popular recently at the Edinburgh Festivals. What I’m interested in now is taking those ideas and drawing them into a piece that has narrative, in a way that makes all of those ideas accessible to people who just come to see a bit of drama.’
Untitled Love Story, St George’s West, 225 7001, 6–29 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), 6pm, £15–£17 (£12–£13). Preview 5 Aug, £10
Audience, St George’s West, 225 7001, 8–28 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), 10.55pm, £10–£12 (£8–£10). Previews 5–7 Aug, £5.