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Theatre Etiquette Debate: Part 2

Last week’s post centered on the etiquette of the classical theatrical space: rows of close seating facing a stage where the actors are clearly separated from the audience. Over the last few years, immersive theatre has grown in popularity and with it came conversations about audience behavior as well as how actors and producers have adapted.

What exactly is immersive theatre? It’s difficult to pin down, and some of the companies which produce the most notable immersive shows actually reject the "immersive theatre" label. According to Wikipedia, immersive theatre "differentiates itself from traditional theater by removing the stage and immersing audiences within the performance itself. Often, this is accomplished by using a specific location, allowing audiences to converse with the actors and interact with their surroundings, thereby breaking the fourth wall." If you want to learn more, here is a link to an in-depth video produced by the American Theatre Wing.

The expectations of audience behavior are not the same in immersive theatre as they are in traditional theatre. The rules also vary between productions, making it more difficult to know how you should behave. Some shows are choose-your-own-adventure style, where you’re free to roam around the set as you please. Others are based on planned "tracks" for you to follow, and there may be more than one track in a production, giving each audience member a different story. Sometimes you’re given a character, like you’re at a murder mystery dinner, and sometimes you get to be yourself. The Punchdrunk theatre company requires audience members to wear full face masks as part of the experience, lending a sense of anonymity. In some performances, there is interaction between actors and audience members, and there may be physical contact between them too. Audience participation is the norm. You are not to be merely an observer, but an active part of the show’s world. These tend not to be called "shows", but rather "experiences".

All these things can lead to blurred lines between actors and attendees, and between the created world and our real world. This can pose safety risks, and an article was published detailing how actors of Punchdrunk’s "Sleep No More" were sexually assaulted by audience members. Friends of mine who worked as actors at a Raleigh escape room told me that audience members could physically injure them if they got too wrapped up in the experience (or were just careless).

Production companies are adapting to reduce the risks. Actors can exit through secret doors if things get out of hand. Security professionals can be planted in the audience to monitor behavior. Small cameras can be placed throughout the set so backstage staff can keep an eye on things. Some companies tell audience members that they will be escorted out of the building and not given a refund if they behave inappropriately. However, risks can’t be removed entirely. Most of the precautions taken involve reacting to bad behavior after it has happened, since it’s difficult to prevent ahead of time. Unfortunately, you just can’t rely on members of the public to behave.

Aside from physical endangerment, audience members can cause other problems. You’ll sometimes see "that guy" who just has to do everything he can to ruin the created illusion and get the actors to break character, usually to show off to his similarly intoxicated buddies. It’s like hecklers at a comedy show but even more disruptive. Since immersive theatre is more casual than traditional theatre, some people have taken this to mean they can get plastered before arriving and then act badly. There is also the occasional stolen or broken prop or the person who ignores the "staff only" sign and wanders backstage. These risks can be reduced by limiting audience size, but that cuts into the profits in an industry that already struggles financially.

Bad audience behavior presents these risks to production companies, but the audience is not necessarily safe either. Many of these "experiences" are crafted to stir certain emotions in people, but the production may go too far in pursuit of shock value. Most immersive shows require you to sign a consent form, but you don’t actually know exactly what you’re consenting to, since being given all those details would spoil surprises. One show in London, Barzakh, has been criticized for being particularly traumatizing, even for people who generally knew what they were getting into. Furthermore, the nature of audience participation can vary from production to production. It might be fun and playful or it might be purposefully humiliating, or even physically violating. Of course, what’s mildly uncomfortable to one person might feel like abuse to another. It’s impossible to adjust a show to suit every person.

On the production side of things, there are a few things that can be done to protect both actors and audience members:

1. Unlike in "Sleep No More" (and once the pandemic is over), don’t give out masks. While they do add to the unsettling mood of a production, if audience members are made more anonymous by masks they may feel freer to act inappropriately and they’ll find it easier to disappear into a crowd.

2. If more extreme versions of audience participation or interaction are included, make it easier for audience members to show whether they are open to those interactions or not. This could be in the form of color-coded wristbands or similar items.

3. Be clear about the rules upfront and keep them relatively simple. Before the experience begins, make sure attendees are properly briefed on what is or is not allowed in the production and make sure those rules are consistent throughout the space.

4. As mentioned before, kick people out without refunds if they are behaving badly.

5. Make use of coded language shared between actors and any security personnel. It doesn’t have to be out of line with the story, but if an actor says a particular sentence, that can subtly let staff know to keep an eye on a particular audience member.

6. Allow actors and audience members to easily remove themselves if necessary.

Now, for audience etiquette, a few rules to experiment with when immersive theatre comes back:

1. Your default should be standard traditional theatre etiquette. Don’t go past this unless you have been explicitly told that it’s allowed. When it comes to interacting with actors, a good rule of thumb is to "engage when engaged with" and to practice physical self-restraint.

2. Do background research. Know ahead of time if drinks or food will be served so you know if you should have dinner beforehand. If they do serve alcohol at the location, it’s best to show up sober. Even if they don’t serve alcohol, it’s still probably best to show up sober.

3. Wear simple and comfortable clothing. A lot of immersive theatre involves moving throughout the space and a decent amount of walking, so be prepared for that. Also be mindful of the world they’ve created and don’t try to stand out with clothing that draws attention to you and away from the set. Some immersive performances, like one set in a speakeasy, encourage dressing up in costume that fits the world.

4. Arrive early. While this is important in traditional theatre, it’s especially important in immersive theatre because so much of the performance is based on timing. If you show up late you could get in the way or ruin an illusion. You could even be denied entry if it’s too disruptive.

5. Put your phone away. Also important in traditional theatre, removing this distraction will help you and other audience members to remain immersed in the performance. After all, it’s not a "show" it’s an "experience" and you should be fully present.

6. Play along with the improv knowing you don’t have to take the lead. When an actor draws you in to participate they usually have a set storyline guiding the conversation and the action. Don’t try to take over and give your own kind of performance. Respect the illusion and the world the show has created. Suspend disbelief and don’t be "that guy".

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