On Trusting The Audience – Eleanor Webster, When We Grow Up

When the idea of interacting with an audience was first brought up in a devising session, my first thought was “What have I gotten myself into?” In short, interactive theatre has never really been my thing and the idea of engaging total strangers wasn’t entirely appealing to me. How would they react? Would they want to join the discussion? Would the audience members even care enough to engage at all? These were all the worried thoughts that raced through my head during rehearsal and it certainly wasn’t an overstatement to claim that I was a bit terrified. As a plant within the audience, my main job is for facilitation and encouraging the audience to speak their thoughts on the topic of career value… so not too anxiety inducing, right? Nope! My mind couldn’t stop racing through everything that could possibly go wrong. As a seemingly “normal” audience member, would the audience members actually be receptive to my probing and choose to offer up their own thoughts?

Despite my initial worries and endless “What ifs”, I have been so pleasantly surprised by the audience reactions to WWGU! We have had four shows at Capital Fringe thus far and not a single one has been the same. We have had audiences that refused to select anyone as least valuable, audiences that wanted to change the system as a whole, and audiences that wanted to flesh out the whole issue themselves by initiating their own debate! It has been absolutely incredible to watch the audience – most of them strangers – really take hold of the conversation and get down to the nitty gritty of the dialogue WWGU encourages. Should efficiency be regarded as more valuable than compassion and empathy in our society? Aren’t we always ranking people and is it necessary? These are the types of questions that have been brought up during our performances and the answers, although mixed, have continually managed to be thoughtful despite the silliness and improvisational fun that the rest of the show and characters bring.

Eleanor Face

What has probably surprised me the most about this experience is how much I have actually enjoyed being a part of the audience and experiencing the show right there with them! I have only ever experienced interacting with an audience from the stage as a character that was detached from myself and not right there in the seats as an active participant. This has probably been most apparent to me in the portion of the show when the audience members are asked to split into small groups where they are given the chance to really start discussing value as it relates to careers. Watching the members of each group I ended up in really get into this conversation has been fascinating and rewarding. I’ve seen audience members adamantly defend their careers and the careers of others and really start to delve deeper into the system of evaluation and rank.

So did the world come crashing down with my first go at interactive theatre? Far from it! WWGU has taught me to let go of expectations and to acknowledge the audience in a really special way that allows them to have a voice both individually and as a group. We’ve managed to reach a wide variety of people and it’s been interesting to see just how each audience is unique in its own collective reaction. While my worried thoughts haven’t exactly ceased, I’m slowly learning to actually enjoy the feeling of not knowing and to gain a little trust in my fellow audience member.

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