It’s not just you: most people fear and loathe the idea of “audience participation.”
“Why do I fear audience participation so much?” writes Bruce Dessau in the UK e-magazine Beyond the Joke. “Maybe it’s genetic. My daughter won’t even go to a show which includes, as she calls it ‘AP’. …I guess it’s about control. About being in command of what is happening.”
Even those who are comfortable in front of a large group quake at the thought of suddenly being thrust into the spotlight. As a recent article in The Cut noted, “An audience-participation situation … eliminates that preparation time and adds a layer of spontaneity. It also subverts expectations for the role you’re expected to play… Generally, audiences are supposed to be passive. Performers who single out audience members for an active role have ‘flipped the script’ … turning a relaxing activity into anything but.”
Which is yet another reason performances by the European theater collective Gob Squad are so singular: they include the audience, even inviting a few members up on stage, and yet in a way that is uncannily fun and comfortable. Upper Valley audiences will experience this firsthand when Gob Squad performs its show War and Peace, a madcap yet thoughtful meditation on the big themes of Tolstoy’s massive novel and how they apply to today. Audience members play an important role in unpacking those themes and setting the tone of the show.
Before the performance, Gob Squad lays the groundwork by approaching people in the lobby, chatting them up and getting to know them. As the show opens, the cast welcomes the audience to a “salon” – a high-society, high-minded party like that which opens the novel War and Peace – and warmly introduces each of the audience members who is joining the cast on stage, the way the most charming host would do. The experience builds from there, with those onstage guests and the audience as a whole made to feel they are part of a circle of smart, kind, savvy, globe-trotting friends.
How does Gob Squad do it?
Explains Sharon Smith, a member of the collective since 2007 and part of the War and Peace cast: “In Gob Squad, we want to be together with the audience. Even though, in the given set up, we are the ones being given the permission to speak, we don’t have an interest so much in telling the audience something, we are not didactic in that way. Rather we want to be in conversation with the audience. In War and Peace the whole audience and the performers are situated in The Salon. We invite a few people from the audience to sit with us at our table. So our conversation can stay real and open. We always take care of our guests. Their comfort and the ease with which they can be themselves is our main responsibility.”