‘Oh, yes I am! Oh, no you’re not!,’ or ‘He’s behind you!’ sums up most people’s definition of audience participation. It describes the complicity encouraged between the stage and the auditorium, whereby direct contact is made, and the audience feel empowered to join in with the actors. Adults do it with tongue in cheek, but most children, until they reach the age of cynicism (currently, sadly, as low as 9) will enter into the spirit of the entertainment and shout out with energy and passion. In pantomime, audience participation is a vital ingredient. Heroes and heroines are helped. Villains are hindered. Sometimes things can get out of hand. Last Christmas I saw an Abanazar whip a schools’ audience into such a frenzy that he ended up yelling, ‘Shut up! This bit’s plot! You have to LISTEN!’ Thank heaven he had a radio mike. Otherwise I fear he would have been swamped and forced off stage.
In children’s theatre, audience-baiting and rabble-rousing is discouraged. Many respected practitioners refuse to use audience participation at all, seeing it as a vulgar intrusion into the storytelling. For me it has always been a question of horses for courses. For THE BFG and THE WITCHES it seemed inappropriate, whereas in two of my other Dahl adaptations, THE TWITS and DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, it seemed a positive plus. The audience help defeat the odious Twits by protecting the birds and helping the Mugglewumps escape. And they help Danny to sabotage the villainous Mr Hazell’s shooting party. The children become, en masse, a vital character in the drama, without whom the plot would grind to a halt.
Most very young children undoubtedly love to be involved verbally – chanting spells or singing choruses or creating a storm or calling out advice - and physically – doing aerobics or playing musical statues.
But audience participation can be risky, and must be diplomatically controlled, in order to achieve the most satisfying results. A young audience needs to know when to join in and when to stop. Often I have seen a whole audience asked to stand up to do something, but not asked afterwards to sit down again. This can lead to mayhem. And, once the audience has been given licence to join in, they will happily grab any opportunity to do so. Directors must be careful not to have an actor ask a question ‘out front’ if they are not expecting an audience reply – otherwise an unwanted response may follow. Similarly, information gained from the audience must be received with a nod or a thankyou, to avoid a house full of helpful children, assuming the message has not been received, yelling and yelling until someone on stage offers an acknowledgement.
Two of my children’s plays are currently touring the UK. Both employ audience participation. In GEORGE’S MARVELLOUS MEDICINE, for older children, Dahl’s hero, young George, is helped by the audience to remember the ingredients of his magic potion. In Phil Clark’s production for Birmingham Stage Company, the participation develops naturally and wholeheartedly, and fun is had by all.
For younger children, I have adapted and directed GUESS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU, based on Sam McBratney’s book, for Sally Humphreys Productions. This show possibly employs more audience participation than any of my others. The children join in actions and songs, play games and hop and dance. When we opened, at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, the semicircular floor area between the front row and the edge of the stage became a disco, as tiny children couldn’t resist leaving their seats – and their adults – to join in up close. By the end, the happy throng stood waving their arms in time to the music; it was like a rock concert for three year olds. Parents seemed delighted that the children were so actively engrossed. Other theatres on the tour don’t have a convenient ‘disco floor’, but children still feel impelled to dance in the aisles or to come to the edge of the stage. Unfortunately this means that Health and Safety has sometimes reared its killjoy head, with well-meaning ushers attempting to keep the children in their seats. I suppose theatres are worried that if a child gets hurt, they will be sued. Understandable, but sad to see such positive joy squashed. Or am I just old-fashioned?
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