The Psychology of the Audience

The departure from traditional theater means that anything is possible

Seeking insight into what makes immersive theater work for an audience, Jeffrey Mosser observes three productions: PearlDamour's How to Build a Forest, Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, and Mikhael Tara Garver’s Fornicated From the Beatles. This four post series includes interviews with creators as well as with patrons pre and post show. Find the first post here.

Once we enter a space we strive to understand the parameters—including how vital our role as an audience is. We want to hold up our end of the bargain as patrons because we came here to see the show as it was intended. The degree of interaction required by the show may be active or passive, but we seek to know if we (as audience members) are important to telling the story.

Shortly before being released into Sleep No More’s McKittrick “Hotel” we were given some basic rules—most of which surrounded a mask with a long, protruding nose. With this anonymity both the actors and the audience might do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. I saw audience members rummaging through drawers and opening private doors. Coming from a guy who might open your home medicine cabinet, this was a great device. At the same time—I saw audience members fight for front row seats to see nudity, violence, or action, as well as actors who could choose between seeing audience members or not (more on that in a minute).

My mask forced me to physically change how I focused. I remember thinking about how much I had to move my body just to look at something closely, or to see around another audience member. The mask played a double role: for personal exploration of the show it lent an intimate, detailed, and intensified experience as though we were looking through a magnifying glass -- everything became a clue. And for the moments which were shared experiences the mask acted as a proscenium—effectively blinding me from other actions (of actors and audiences) happening outside that moment.

We were asked not to speak, but that didn’t mean that we couldn’t communicate. Through their own gestures and beak-like masks, audiences inadvertently narrated the story to one another—where to look, which character was most interesting. This “flocking” effect was highly influential, as most patrons did not want to miss the action. This created the ensemble of the audience.

Discovery #3: We want to follow the actors through a discovery—and we want to share that discovery with others.

This combination of anonymity and focus somehow allowed the flexibility of engagement between actor and audience. I had encounters with both Mr. and Lady Macbeth and both times my role shifted from voyeur to participant in a beat. In each instance I was touched. I realize it might sound creepy or out of place for the actors to touch me, but at the same time it was probably just as weird to have a guy with a bird-mask following them around. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this sudden and drastically human connection was desired. I wanted to connect, I wanted to solve the problem, and I wanted to help. It was just the two of us—just for a second—it didn’t matter that they were acting.

 

I wanted to connect, I wanted to solve the problem, and I wanted to help. It was just the two of us—just for a second—it didn’t matter that they were acting.

 

“I refused a glass of wine from an actor and I felt as though I wasn’t playing by the rules. I let down that actor,” said one patron post show, “so yeah, I was important to the show.” This gesture changed an actor’s action. “Also, if I ever was in a room by myself [with an actor] I felt that if I left it would be rude.”

What's the music at fornicated from the Beatles? Its true. we feature a different band each night. some may think that's crazy.  It is.  But that's how we like it. We seek out different bands with their own unique rocking sound. So. Each night for the audience and the performers everything changes when the band begins to play.  The music, the characters, and you are woven together for one night only.  What might happen?
Ad for Fornicated From the Beatles in New York.

Discovery #4: If the audience buys in, they want to help the scene.

“i found your # in my pocket and a note that you are into seeing new bands. right?”

Fornicated From the Beatles started engaging me before I even arrived at the venue—two days before to be specific, via text (see above).

Fornicated takes place at a music club and incorporates a rock band into the performance. The text I received was not unsolicited; in fact, when I bought my ticket, I chose a “Superfan” to receive texts from. The Superfans are actors and/or administrators who engage audience members through texting before and during the show, inventing stories about how you know each other, if you want to see a concert (which you’ve conveniently already bought tickets to see), how great the band is, and other random day-to-day bits of information (about community gardens, chess clubs, and the like). By the time the audience arrives for the show, it seemed that everyone felt a rapport with the Superfans.  The most eager of audience members tried to seek out and chat up their Superfan text-friend in line before the show.

It became clear that members of the audience were fixated on what their degree of participation would be, but overall they understood and accepted they were going to be a part of a very different kind of show:

“I was more excited to receive a text from [Superfan] Samantha Z. than from my real friends” noted one audience member. And at the other extreme: “the texting doesn’t bother me, but I don’t care.”

The audiences’ ability to communicate was very different in Fornicated From the Beatles than in Sleep No More. The story was less subjective and certainly more linear; it could be told regardless of my degree of participation, but what I found outstandingly similar was focus— and flocking! Frequently, a text message would guide my focus to a character in particular, however there were also actors integrated into the audience. They guided audience members with flashlights and laser-like eyes—the key difference here was that that this show relied on actor driven, rather than audience driven, narration.

Discovery #5: Sometimes we like to be told what to do, or at least understand the structure.

Two posts down, two to go, and we’ve got lots of ground to cover yet. Next time I’ll dig deeper into audience interaction and the malleable rules of this genre.  I’ll explore how Fornicated From the Beatles and How to Build a Forest tore down the walls that Sleep No More built up.

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Thoughts from the curator

Seeking insight into what makes immersive theater work for an audience, Jeffrey Mosser observes three productions: How to Build a Forest, Sleep No More, and Mikhael Tara Garver's Fornicated From the Beatles.

Psychology of the Audience

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I love this series. I'm the AD of a small theater in a small town, and we want to create a deconstructed play based on a bit of local history that has to do with secrets, lies, and misinformation. We've been thinking of using an interactive approach for our audiences with pretty negative feedback; here, the audience expects to sit politely in the dark until the end of the show. "No one will know what to do or where to go" or "that is way too avant garde for our area" are the comments I hear most when I share our ideas with local supporters. Your articles give some concrete examples and success stories that I can share and use for inspiration. Looking forward to part three!

Whoa. I haven't heard anything about Fornicated From the Beatles and now I'm fascinated. I've dreamt of integrating ARG (alternate reality game) elements into a theatrical event. How awesome is that?! [wheels of mind spinning...]