When Stephen O’Connell, co-artistic director of Dance Marathon, explained to his actors that during the show’s New York run the entire audience would spontaneously break into the YMCA, the cast were understandably sceptical. New Yorkers are way too cynical for that, they told him, way too cool.
But O’Connell was right. Such is the immersive force of Dance Marathon’s unique theatrical journey that halfway through, when the sounds of Village People hit the dancefloor, even the most affected hipster succumbed. “They just totally gave into it,” O’Connell explains.
The premise of Dance Marathon is inspired by the Depression-era endurance contests of the 1930s, in which hapless couples would dance non-stop for hundreds of hours in the pursuit of prize money and the brief promise of fame. Toronto-based company Bluemouth Inc’s theatrical version comes in at a more modest four hours, but nonetheless demands serious participatory commitment. Upon entering, each audience member—or "contestant—is given a number and paired with a random dance partner, some of whom are covert performers.
After an initial "free dance"—a few minutes during which contestants are allowed to freestyle in the dark—cynics are welcome to choose optional elimination, but those who stay in suddenly find themselves thrown into the competitive melee of a real marathon. “After the free dance, you see this really interesting physiological shift,” explains O’Connell. “Most people start all nervous, thinking about their anxieties, but as soon as they’re given three minutes to shift into being in their bodies rather than their head, and the adrenaline kicks in, they move into a completely different emotional state.”
Dance Marathon may seem extreme, but it is only one of a number of intensely participatory plays on offer at this year’s Fringe. The festival has always been a hotbed for immersive and site-specific work, but traditionally these shows have been performer-led or framed around one-on-one interactions between performer and spectator. In contrast, Dance Marathon is emblematic of a new breed of Fringe theatre that casts its entire audience in the lead role. From Blast Theory’s A Machine to See With, which invites audiences to rob a bank, to the promise of a video-goggle joyride in And the Birds Fell from the Sky, there is a long list of shows that rely on audience interaction to create the performance.
And at its most exciting, this new wave of participatory theatre has the ability to open up exhilarating new directions in aesthetic experience. By getting the audience to dance, for instance, O’Connell says Dance Marathon is able to fundamentally alter the physical and emotional state of its audience. “Because the Marathon is a four-hour competition, the audience goes through a natural process of fatigue. And that’s when we begin to interlace our more theatrical moments – poetry, music, visuals. At this point, people are feeling vulnerable so when the final monologue hits you, the language takes you to a completely different level.”
Certainly, the show is not without its plaudits. Award-winning Scottish Playwright David Greig was so impressed after seeing the show in Cork that he proclaimed, “Dance Marathon feels like a new paradigm for performance. The art arrives on seeded ground: not a cold audience in a theatre watching with a critically detached eye but, literally, a warm audience, open to emotion and involved with the performance.”
Yet not all this year’s participatory productions are quite so euphoric and life-affirming. Acclaimed Belgian company Ontroerend Goed return with Audience, a show that promises to explore the darker side of group dynamics. Part theatre, part social experiment, the show aims to push the boundaries of audience interaction, testing in particular how people react under the strain of group pressure.
“At the beginning we make the audience feel comfortable, we treat them with a lot of respect and kindness,” explains Joeri Smet, one of the show’s actors. “But then we challenge them and force them to take a position. And the most interesting thing is that people comply to a context when there is a certain expectation of behaviour. And theatre does it as well, you’re expected to applaud, you’re expected to laugh, you’re expected to have fun. But in this show we explore what happens when suddenly the fun gets a little bit nasty, or has this darker quality. Do you continue having fun, or do you suddenly make a switch?"
Of course the success of shows like Audience and Dance Marathon hinge on the cooperation of audience members. But what happens if people refuse to take part? Ontroerend Goed plan meticulously for such occurrences, staging dozens of dress rehearsals for test audiences. The idea is to find a structure, a dramaturgy, where the actors can deal with anything the audience throws at them – even total refusal. “It’s like a tree structure,” says Smet. “You have possible reaction a, b, c, d, and you know what to do when each one happens so that we can still move on in the play.”
But Smet is concerned that British audiences may be more reticent than those on the continent about "going with" the show as it explores more disarming and uncomfortable interactions. “I’ve noticed there is a tendency to be quite ethical here and there might be things that go a bit too far for a British audience,” he says. Smet is reluctant to generalise about why the Brits may find it harder to explore their dark side, but hints that British society contains "more social rules" than elsewhere.
Adrian Howells, playwright and artist-in-residence at The Arches, says he’s noticed a similar risk aversion among audiences in the UK. “Of course I’m generalising, but I think what the Brits do is automatically put up barriers to protect themselves. We’re not very good at exploring. We're too uptight and we find it difficult to engage in more intimate forms of communication,” he says. “For example, just on a superficial level, when do you really share qualitative eye contact with someone in Britain? When do you really meet someone’s gaze?”
Howells’ work is famous for using close-up participatory theatre to foster this kind of intimate connection, and this year he continues in this vein with two highly interactive Fringe shows. In The Pleasure of Being: Washing, Feeding, Holding, Howells explores the power of non-verbal communication by enticing one audience member into a luxurious bath of rose petals and essential oils, before wrapping them in a fluffy white towel, feeding them white chocolate and delicately cradling them in his arms. His second show, May I Have The Pleasure…?, continues the therapeutic theme, with audiences invited to a fictional wedding disco and encouraged to join Howells in dancing, reminiscing and collectively venting about irate brides, unreasonable wedding requests and the more general disappointment of failed relationships.
Although Howells’ work may be less energetic than Dance Marathon, he agrees with Greig that this new wave of participatory theatre is bringing with it potentially transformational possibilities. “It’s about facilitating opportunities for people to have physical, emotional or cathartic experiences, about really connecting with themselves,” he says.
For his part, O’Connell says he is flattered by Greig’s claims about the paradigm-shifting potential of Dance Marathon. “I think as a group we think more modestly,” he says. “But I do think we’ve discovered a number of really unique ways to work with audiences and perhaps open the floodgates for a new kind of performance. The question now is where we go from here.”