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NewCityNet Stage Wrong

When interactive theater gets too interactive

By Carl Kozlowski

JUNE 29, 1998:  The curtain would come down on most plays if an NFL star leapt out of his seat and tackled the actors. The lights would go up if two performers staged such a believable fight that a sheriff tried to arrest them. And most stage managers would be furious if an actress playing a Catholic school nun kicked four patrons out of the audience by claiming to send them to the principal's office. But such incidents are just part of the fun for Chicago's interactive theater productions. In a setting where audience members are allowed to talk to the cast members, get involved in the action and sometimes even decide how the story will end, bizarre twists are expected--to a point.

"I'm always surprised at the side of people it brings out, the side they try to hide," says Pat Musker of Royal George Theatre's "Flanagan's Wake." "It's like they suddenly have license to do or say things they normally wouldn't." Musker plays Fiona Finn, the fiancée of the deceased Flanagan in the five-year-old production. In an Irish saloon setting, audience members are treated as guests at a wake where the entire town is fighting over the title to Flanagan's land. Along the way, audience members are asked to choose how Flanagan died, the one place he traveled outside of Ireland and an unfulfilled dream he had. Some are chosen to get up and pretend to be the Killarney dancers, or caterwaul their way through a rendition of "Danny Boy." Even with all this interaction, about 80 percent of the show follows a script. It's in the other 20 percent that things can get hairy.

"One night Dave Butz, a six-foot-eight, 350-pound Lions and Redskins player, came to the show and we kept teasing him the whole time about what a coward he was," recalls "Flanagan's" creator Jack Bronis. "We didn't think anything of it through the intermission, but towards the end the priest and Fiona have a fight. Butz jumped over three rows of audience members and pushed the cast out of the way to save Fiona. It was only then that he realized this part of the show wasn't supposed to involve interaction."

At least Butz turned around and apologized to everyone. Musker recalls an instance of elderly women telling her character to "open a brothel!" when asked what she ought to do with Flanagan's land.

"You expect that from younger people, but these are senior groups," she says. "I'll introduce myself to people as Flanagan's fiancˇe and they'll say, 'Oh yeah, well I was his mistress and this is his illegitimate child' and cackle in my face. All I can say is thank goodness I'm not a real widow."

The Neo-Futurists troupe set out to test the limits of such behavior with their recent show, "Crime and Punishment." Based on bizarre early-seventies college studies which tried to determine how normal human beings became capable of following orders as Nazi concentration camp guards, "Crime" was one interactive experience where the audience truly was the show. Each of the fifty audience members was given a Walkman with headphones and a tape bearing individual instructions to carry out.

The stated goal of Conor Kalista and Greg Allen as leaders of the experiment was for audience members to perform all thirteen tasks on their tapes within an hour. Along the way, each person would have to decide where and if they would draw the line. During at least one performance toward the end of the run, few participants were holding anything back.

One guy wound up singing the National Anthem with his pants down around his ankles. I found myself plunging a toilet while screaming "Polack! Polack!" when asked to shriek out a racial or ethnic slur that would accompany a violent toilet cleansing. (At least I insulted my own kind.) And a few of us experienced the terrifying embarrassment of performing a cavity search on a fellow audience member.

"The cavity search was one we knew would be a real test of how far people would follow," laughs Kalista. "We told people to turn their tapes off at each step of their instructions, so we had people wandering around with flashlights asking to perform the searches without knowing just how bad the next step would be. They were always relieved when the tape just told them to ask the other person to open their mouths so they could check for tooth fillings."

And then there were the indecent exposure instructions. In this highlight of the evening, a person was ordered to go into a bathroom stall, lock the door and drop their pants but not use the facilities. They then were instructed to unlock the stall door slowly but still leave it closed. Once they had unlocked the door, the unfortunate soul was supposed to whisper "Hey I'm naked in here," under the threat that someone would be listening and follow them inside.

"The reason it's simultaneously funny and frightening was we designed it to be something we didn't think anyone would do," explains Kalista. "The shock was that some people were so vulnerable they went ahead with it, but once they did a lot of people claimed it was the most fun they'd ever had."

For slightly more wholesome entertainment, check out "Late Night Catechism." The five-year-old Ivanhoe Theater show features an actress playing a nun addressed only as Sister, who tells audience members they are in an adult catechism class designed to refresh their Catholic education.

With the help of writers Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan, current star penguin Rosie Newton dishes out funny takes on Catholic history and the unusual lives of the saints, while browbeating latecomers and chastising wisecracking attendees with lines like "Put away your purse or I'm sending it to the missions!" During a recent performance, Newton ordered a man named Raymond to squeeze into a child-size desk onstage, when he got busted for hitting her with a paper airplane. She also led the audience through such instructive chants as, "Where do we go December 8?" "Church!" "And if you don't go to church, where will you go?" "Hell!"

Sister also maintains the fine Catholic tradition of yelling "Oh, Mr. Smartypants! Why don't you write a 1,500-word report on the topic for Wednesday?" on the rare occasion when she is stumped by an audience member's question. Ah, the good old days.

"If you were a good student in school, you're a good audience member for our show," says Quade. "But if you were bad, you'll be tossing spitballs, talking and disrupting the class." Newton agrees, having recently suffered through a performance during which four men sat in the back of the theater blowing into empty beer bottles, popping gum loudly and tossing paper airplanes. At first it seemed like the guys were just trying to be part of the fun, but as anyone who's been through Catholic schools knows, you can only push a nun so far.

"As an actor I had to ask myself how a nun would really respond to being treated that way," recalls Newton. "And the audience was starting to get annoyed, too. So I marched up the steps and said, 'You, you, you and you. You're going to the principal's office.'"

Newton then asked a "priest" to lead the men out into the theater lobby, where they were admonished for stepping over the line. "A light bulb went on in their heads and they snapped back to reality and said, 'Oh!'" Newton says. "They came back in, apologized to me, and the entire audience burst into applause and cheering. The boys stayed quiet the rest of the show." One show where audience members are encouraged to speak up throughout is "Shear Madness." During every performance, the crowd is asked by an onstage detective to recount events and provide clues that could reveal which cast member committed a murder. Running for the past fifteen years at the downtown Blackstone Hotel, the show is set in a hair salon rife with comic stereotypes and features dialogue loaded with double entendres.

But the audience proves about as adept as the LAPD at solving a murder. Selective recall and group thinking takes over as crowd members recount evidence that never existed, and insist definite suspects are innocent while calling for the heads of characters who have little or no evidence implicating them. Not to mention the evidence-tampering that occurs when audience members grab props to examine during intermission.

"It's amazing how worked up people get about these things," says Deb Doetzer, general understudy and assistant stage manager. "People will say 'I saw the plastic glove,' and there never was one but then everyone will yell out, 'Yeah!'"

The fact that audience members are drawn into checking out every detail means that "Shear Madness" actors have to acknowledge their onstage mistakes. Recent mishaps included one actor accidentally tossing a pair of scissors into the audience, and another kicking a lunch box smack into the legs of a woman in the front row.

Yet the crowd can also throw the actors for a loop aside from the crime-solving process. "This one woman spent the whole show yelling at everyone in turn, 'You're crazy! You're crazy!'" recalls Doetzer. "And then there were two old women sitting together one night who kept making this 'AAAAAAHHH!' noise after every joke. We didn't know if there was something wrong, but it turns out they were just laughing like Fran Drescher."

Once you've attended a wake, acted like a perv in a bathroom stall, endured a religion class and solved a murder, it's time to check out a wedding. More than 300,000 people have attended "Tony & Tina's Wedding" during its five years at Pipers Alley, where the night begins with an extremely sarcastic wedding and ends with a raucous reception.

In between, audience members meet an odd assortment of characters, including a pregnant bridesmaid, an ex-boyfriend straight out of drug rehab, a gay videographer and a full array of swaggering Italian stereotypes. The show is a Vegas-size spectacle - you get a little dinner, do a little dancing and watch as fights break out and characters try to sneak off and make a little love.

The non-stop action proves a bit much for some audience members, like the Protestant minister who leaped up and insisted that he was qualified to perform the fake wedding ceremony. Or the people who occasionally interrupt the proceedings to object to the marriage. And let's not forget the Cook County sheriff who didn't quite grasp the concept of the show.

"One night a staged fight took place that carried from the play area out into the hallway," recalls Marty Shannon, who plays the show's priest. "An off-duty sheriff was walking by and he thought it was real, so he pulled out his gun and told everybody to freeze. The actors were scared to death because they thought they were going to get shot. The stage manager and director wound up having to go out and calm the guy down before he would put his gun away." But it's not loaded guns that most interactive performers have to watch out for. It's you. "I used to have audience members try to kick me and hit me when I played a role in the catering staff," says Jodi Meyer, who portrays caterer Vinnie Black's wife in "Tony & Tina's Wedding." "When I passed out the plates, they'd hit me on the ass and on the head. If someone handed me a plate, I wouldn't hit them with it. It makes you wonder what's going on with you people?"

You've been warned.

(Frank Sennett)


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