The art of (avoiding) audience participation

Presume all actors are sadists seeking to torture introverts

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

In theater’s early days, did a budding playwright sit through a performance, hoping and praying the actors might suddenly pause in their dialogue, turn toward the audience, and specifically include him or her as part of the action? Did that person go on to invent interactive theater? And was he subsequently beaten by a mob of introverts?

I supposed there must be an art to audience participation. I know there’s an art to avoiding it. Once a performer has committed to putting you in the spotlight, politely declining won’t always work. Not only will other stage actors apply social pressure for you to stop being so uptight and go along with it, the rest of the audience will expect you to as well. At that point, even if you avoid the trap of participating, the back and forth will net you just as much unwanted attention.

When the audience participation portion of a show begins, avoid making eye contact with the actors; that goes without saying. And if performers seem determined to single you out, pretend to read the printed program so intently that you appear entirely oblivious to their requests.

Everyone will know you’re ignoring them, yes, but nobody will be able to prove it, and that illusion is usually enough in theatrical circles. At some point it becomes more embarrassing for them to keep insisting than for you to keep pretending, and the cast will be obliged to comply with “show must go on” statutes, and move along to somebody else.

This approach won’t win you any friends in the cast, but deep down, I like to think they secretly admire my commitment to the reading-a-program-in-the-dark bit.

Obviously, introverts aren’t the only people who attend theater. Probably most people enjoy being put on the spot, and actually have a lot of fun participating in the show. So it follows there must be a technique to letting an interactive cast member know that you’re game to participate.

It’s probably a subtle thing. Think of it like an audition. If you sit there raising your hand and wiggling in your seat like you’ve got a dozen hilarious jokes to shout out, they won’t see you as convincing. Better to seem coy about it, pliable. Catch someone’s eye, then look away shyly. Smile and, if you can, blush. Presume all actors are sadists seeking to torture introverts, and when you catch their eye again, don’t be afraid to show a little fear. They always seem to respond to that.

If you’re an extrovert, OnStage Playhouse will be staging musical comedy The Mystery of Edwin Drood until November 30. The cast lets the audience choose the ending to the mystery.

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